A Warhol, a wild history and today’s art market

Andy Warhol once gave a screen-printed portrait of Marilyn Monroe to a skeptical friend. Keep it safe in a closet, Warhol said: “One day it will be worth a million dollars.” Perhaps it undersold, given the recent price tag of another of Warhol’s Marilyn serigraphs. “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is now the most expensive work of art of the 20th century, having fetched $195 million at a New York auction.

The story of “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is as striking as its price. In 1964, Dorothy Podber, an artist and provocateur, came to Warhol’s studio, The Factory, pulled out a gun and shot through several of the portraits. Four years later, Warhol himself was shot and nearly killed in The Factory, which can only have added to the mystique of bullet-scarred imagery.

The portrait deserves the ‘iconic’ cliche, but there is a much more obscure portrait that claims to be Warhol’s most interesting and definitive work. May I offer your consideration “Che”, who has been based on a 1967 newspaper photograph of Che Guevara’s corpse. This is in many ways a classic portrait of Warhol, done using his instantly recognizable screen printing method and exploring his usual themes of fame, death and mass production. What makes “Che” so interesting? For some time after its creation, Warhol had no idea the image existed.

Warhol liked to play with ideas of originality and authorship. His images of Marilyn Monroe were based on a publicity photograph taken by Eugene Kornman, converted by technicians into acetates and screens. Warhol’s assistant, Gerard Malanga, would generally place the screen and apply the Liquitex paints. Some of Warhol’s works are even “signed” with a rubber stamp of his signature. In principle, the whole process, from photography to signing, could take place without Warhol ever touching the work. Obviously, this was part of Warhol’s point of view.

“Why don’t you ask my assistant Gerry Malanga questions?” he teased reporters during interviews. “He did a lot of my paintings.”

It took a young man in love to bring this vision of fatherhood to its logical conclusion. In the summer of 1967, Malanga left Warhol’s studio in New York with a one-way ticket to Rome. (The story is delightfully told in Alice Sherwood’s new book Authenticity.) Malanga was infatuated with an Italian muse, but Warhol had offered to send money if Malanga needed a ticket home. Yet when Malanga asked for the promised funds, Warhol did not respond. Malanga then decided he might as well do a Warhol-style serigraph of Che’s photograph – a large one on canvas, and a few small prints on paper as well.


Malanga wrote again to Warhol noting that, unless he heard otherwise, he would assume Andy was okay with it. In a follow-up, he noted that Warhol would surely not object to the photos being sold as “Andy Warhols”. Warhol did not respond, and soon Che’s portraits were on display in a commercial gallery in Rome, people began to suspect the truth, and Malanga was threatened with a long prison term for forgery.

Malanga’s next communication was by telegram. He begged Warhol to intervene: “I WILL BE IN AN ITALIAN MUNICIPAL PRISON WITHOUT GUARANTEE. . . HELP ME PLEASE! HELP ME PLEASE!”

Finally, Warhol responded. “CHE GUEVARAS ARE ORIGINALS,” he wrote. “HOWEVER MALANGA NOT AUTHORIZED TO SELL CONTACT ME BY LETTER FOR ADJUSTMENTS ANDY WARHOL.”

Alice Sherwood says it is “an important moment in the history of art and authenticity”. I am okay. Malanga’s paintings were made in the same way as many of Warhol’s most famous works, and by the same person: Gerard Malanga. The circumstances of their production suggest that they are not really Warhol paintings, but Warhol said they were – with a single telegram, not only turning the forgeries into genuine, but appropriating they too.

Did Sherwood describe an act of infringement here? Fake ad? Flight by Malanga of the Warhol brand? Theft by Warhol of the photos of Malanga? Top notch concept art? I’ll leave that one to the philosophers — and since Che’s canvas was later destroyed, the art market won’t be able to say.

From an economist’s perspective, it may seem odd that Warhol’s images are so prized, given that he did so much. But he seems to have anticipated a very 21st-century approach to products, such as digital goods, that are cheap or free to copy: using the ubiquity of copies as a way to create demand for a premium version.

There’s the limited-edition running shoes, the signed first editions of Harry Potter and, of course, there’s the work of digital artist Beeple. “Everyday: The First 5,000 Days”, which is free to anyone with an internet connection but grossed $69.3 million for an identical image accompanied by a crypto token asserting uniqueness. Beeple, like Malanga, seems to have overtaken Warhol. But since Warhol himself once said “Good business is the best art,” he surely would have approved.

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