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Art Market

How Collectors Can Avoid Buying Forged Works by Basquiat, Haring, and Warhol

Richard Polsky
May 14, 2021 12:00PM

Portrait of Andy Warhol in Milan, 1987. Photo by Leonardo Cendamo. Image via Getty Images

We live in an art world increasingly dominated by online buying and selling. The market for online sales, which has gathered momentum during COVID-19, has reached a point where virtually everyone—both the minor collector and the major auction house—is comfortable making deals over the internet. Transactions routinely run from pennies to (increasingly) millions of dollars. Companies like PayPal and Stripe found a way to make the financial process safe and easy. The only remaining issue—and it’s a big one—is fraud.

Three of the most sought-after artists, whose works are routinely available online, are Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. Unfortunately, they are among the contemporary artists with the highest incidents of forgery. As with any artist, if a work by one of these painters lacks authentication documentation, the seller has to designate it as “in the style of,” “after,” or “attributed to.” The latter, in particular, is a term that can easily be misinterpreted. At the end of the day, it remains a “buyer beware” market.

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It goes without saying that when it comes to treasure hunting online, common sense should prevail. Everyone is familiar with the expression “If it seems too good to be true…” and yet a surprising number of collectors ignore this standard rule of thumb. Another red flag is a provenance which is virtually impossible to confirm. Typical backstories in this vein include how a painting came from a storage locker, garage sale, flea market, or yard sale. Sometimes, in reference to Haring, you hear of a picture which once “belonged to an old boyfriend.” In Basquiat’s case, a frequent claim is that a work was acquired via trade. Warhol aficionados tell stories of getting permission from Andy to fish discarded paintings out of the trash cans at his studio, the Factory. Rarely do any of the above alleged scenarios produce works that are genuine.

Within the many bodies of work created by Warhol, Basquiat, and Haring, there are three specific groups of pictures among the most faked: Warhol’s “Marilyn” prints, Basquiat’s “Postcards,” and Haring’s “Subway Drawings.” Works from each of these series are highly sought after. They are also relatively easy to counterfeit. The following are primers on authentication issues surrounding these specific bodies of work.


Andy Warhol “Marilyn” prints

Warhol’s classic “Marilyn” canvases, the first of several bodies of work featuring the image of Marilyn Monroe, were originally shown at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in 1962. Remarkably, given their radical nature at the time, they sold out. The small canvases (20 inches by 16 inches) were named after Lifesaver candy flavors. Thus, you had Licorice Marilyn, Lemon Marilyn, Cherry Marilyn, and others. They were priced at $250; today you might be looking at $50 million. In 1967, Warhol’s studio began publishing prints. One of these projects was a portfolio of 10 different “Marilyn” graphics. The prints measured 36 by 36 inches, and were produced in editions of 250. At the time, a savvy collector could buy a whole set for only $500. Currently, a complete portfolio, with matching numbers and in good condition, would command $2.5 million.

Many of the portfolios were broken up so the prints could be sold individually. That meant there were over 2,500 Marilyn prints in existence, plus additional artist’s proofs. But despite these high numbers, there were nowhere near enough to satisfy demand over the years. There was something magical about the Marilyns. They went on to become the most sought after—by far—of all Warhol graphics. And that, in turn, is what led to all sorts of problems with fakes and forgeries.

The biggest issue with fake “Marilyn” prints is related to the Sunday B. Morning editions and how they’ve been altered and passed off as genuine Warhols. In 1970, only three years after the original “Marilyn” prints were released, an unauthorized group of Marilyn prints was published by a company called Sunday B. Morning. Though they looked just like Warhol’s original series, they were produced in 10 different colors, and were slightly smaller, at 33.25 inches by 33.25 inches.

It is important to point out that the Sunday B. Morning prints were not created to deceive collectors. This was obviously the case because the back of these prints were stamped in black: “Published by Sunday B. Morning” and “Fill in Your Signature.” Instead, they were produced in homage to Warhol. You might say that Andy was amused by this development, since he was known to have signed a few of these prints: “This is not by me, Andy Warhol.”

A few years later (we are uncertain of the date), Sunday B. Morning published another “Marilyn” portfolio. Only this time, each print was the “correct” size—36 inches by 36 inches—and all 10 prints were screened in the same colors as Warhol’s originals. Sunday B. Morning included the same disclaimer as before on the back of each print. Our educated guess is that unscrupulous individuals found a way to remove this designation.

In 1985, a third group of unauthorized “Marilyn” prints was released by a different publisher, which also consisted of copies of the original Warhol portfolio in both size and color. In the art market, these prints are known as the “European Artist’s Proof Edition.” They are designated with the date 1985 and have a Warhol signature stamped on the back.

Finally, there was a fourth series of unauthorized “Marilyn” prints, known as the “Blue Ink” series. These were issued by Sunday B. Morning, measure 36 by 36 inches, were stamped with blue ink on the back, and are the same colors as Warhol’s original 1967 series. We are unaware of the date of publication of the “Blue Ink” series.

Unscrupulous individuals have found ways to rework these prints—by adding signatures and numbering—so they can be passed off as original Warhols. We have also seen “Marilyn” prints that have faded from being exposed to direct sunlight and were then professionally “re-screened.” Additionally, many Warhol portfolios (though, so far, no “Marilyn” prints) are currently being printed by counterfeiters on sophisticated laser printers. It’s only a matter of time until the “Marilyn” prints undergo the same fate.


Jean-Michel Basquiat “Postcards”

In 1979, in the early days of Basquiat’s career, before he had his first solo show at Annina Nosei in SoHo, he created a small number of postcard-size works. Among them was a group of altered baseball cards, which he referred to as “Anti Product Baseball Cards.” From there, he collaborated with Jennifer Vonholstein and created an eclectic series of color Xerox and mixed-media collages on cardboard—often collectively referred to as Basquiat “Postcards.”

The art market has become flooded with fake Basquiat postcards. Ironically, they are so poorly executed that none of them look anything remotely like Basquiats. The fronts inevitably feature drawings of skulls, grotesque heads, and crowns in oilstick (and other media). The backs often include crowns and the initials JMB. However, there are many more variants that crop up.

In the movie Basquiat (1996), directed by Julian Schnabel, there’s a scene where Basquiat (portrayed by Jeffrey Wright) wanders into a SoHo restaurant and tries to sell Andy Warhol (David Bowie) and the dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Dennis Hopper) a group of postcards. Thus, the myth behind Basquiat producing large quantities of postcards was born. The truth is that he created very few of these works—and even fewer genuine ones survive.

Basquiat postcards seem to crop up everywhere, from an episode of Pawn Stars to multiple listings on eBay. Then there was the story of the portfolio of postcards that was lost on the New York subway. Allegedly, Basquiat and a friend left his studio with a large portfolio crammed full of postcards and took the train uptown. When they came to Basquiat’s stop, he hopped out and accidentally forgot his case. His friend retrieved it and tried on numerous occasions to return it, but Basquiat kept putting him off. Ultimately, Basquiat died suddenly and tragically, and his friend was “stuck” with hundreds of postcards. Currently, these works find their way onto the market on a regular basis.

The allure of purported Basquiat postcards is their “souvenir” size and modest prices. They also always seem to come with a colorful backstory that centers around downtown New York street life. Regardless, the only genuine Basquiat postcards that I’ve ever seen for sale come from mainstream art dealers with sterling reputations.


Keith Haring “Subway Drawings”

The Keith Haring Foundation’s standard policy was not to authenticate the “Subway Drawings.” They were adamant that Keith created them for the pure enjoyment of the massive number of riders who took the subway each day, and that he had no interest in monetizing them. As Haring put it, “[Subway art] was the purest way to avoid the whole thing of getting involved in the commodity part of it and say, ‘Well, you’re doing it because you want to sell them, etc.’” The only problem was that the art market, being what it is, refused to cooperate. Even during Haring’s lifetime, a steady stream of “Subway Drawings” trickled onto the market.

In many ways, the “Subway Drawings” are Haring’s quintessential images. They symbolize everything his art is about: democracy, humanity, and humor. He invented a new language across his entire oeuvre. Though the work has its roots in 20th-century cartooning, it also references ancient Native American petroglyphs. Most significantly, it was part of the graffiti art movement during the 1980s. Along with Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Daze, Futura 2000, and others, Haring shepherded the urban experience from the gritty streets of Lower Manhattan to the sanitized galleries of SoHo, creating a “safe” experience for the work to be seen—and sold. But his “Subway Drawings” never lost their edge, even when hung in a “clean well-lighted” place.

From 1980 to 1985, Haring is said to have produced between 2,000 and 3,000 “Subway Drawings.” You also hear estimates that anywhere between 5% and 10% survived. Haring worked fast, being able to complete a drawing in two to three minutes. His genius lies in his economy of line. Whether creating a complex image or a more minimal composition, he had an uncanny talent for drawing with a continuous, unbroken line.

The “Subway Drawings” were created with white chalk on blank sheets of black paper used by advertising companies as temporary “holding places” until printed advertisements could be inserted in their stead. These sheets of black paper were glued into recessed panels, forcing anyone who wanted to remove one to either tear or cut it out. Because people who tried to remove them worked hastily out of fear of being spotted by police officers patrolling the subway or by other bystanders, most “Subway Drawings” display multiple imperfections.

Forgers tend to create drawings with torn borders that are too symmetrical. They’re also aware that the backs of genuine “Subway Drawings” often have multiple layers of torn posters glued to them and produce counterfeits accordingly. There are also issues with the linear qualities of bogus drawings. Creators of fake “Subway Drawings” cannot capture Haring’s uninterrupted line. Instead, these works have a “start-and-stop” linear quality that fails to replicate Haring’s confident draftsmanship.

Richard Polsky is the owner of Richard Polsky Art Authentication, which specializes in authenticating the work of seven artists: Warhol, Basquiat, Haring, Lichtenstein, Pollock, O’Keeffe, and Traylor.

Richard Polsky