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Venus in dispute: Is it a Warhol?

| Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

An unknown silkscreen print said to be by the late Andy Warhol will go on the auction block on Sept. 2 in Col. Kirk's Auction Gallery in Millville, Columbia County.

“It should bring a few hundred thousand” dollars, predicted Josh Williams, the auction gallery's general manager.

That may happen, but there is a problem:

“It doesn't look like a Warhol,” said Tom Sokolowski, former director of the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Shore.

The unsigned print, titled “Of Thee I Sing — Nico,” is touted as unique. It shows a stylized American flag with red stripes and a double image of “Nico.”

Nico, of course, is Christa Paffgen, the German fashion model and Warhol “superstar” who modeled for Vogue and Coco Chanel. She collaborated with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground on their 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico.”

The auction house states the print is “fairly typical” of Warhol's work. Sokolowski, who saw an emailed image of the print, contends otherwise.

“There are early drawings, but none of them look like that or have that subject matter at all,” Sokolowski said. “The only thing that looks like Warhol, though from the 1950s, are those stars. … That's the only thing. The flag is so crudely done. Warhol never made an image like that.”

Sokolowski surmises the print would be from the mid-1960s.

“One could say, yes, it certainly is a pop image,” Sokolowski said. “But it doesn't have any of the sophistication that Warhol's 1960s works have, by any means.”

The auction house states a Boston woman purchased the print from an unnamed New York City art gallery in the late 1960s or early '70s and kept it until now.

“The reason everyone believes it is a real Warhol — and us, too — is because it is made on Warhol's custom paper,” Williams said. “The paper was made exclusively for Warhol.”

There was no such paper, said Sam Berkovitz, principal auctioneer and appraiser at Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square.

“He was pretty archivally minded, so usually he printed on acid-free rag paper. Some of them were made on thin mat boards actually,” Berkovitz said.

The auction house states that “authentication of such works has become impossible.”

Indeed, it has. The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board disbanded in October 2011 after spending about $7 million to defend a lawsuit over authentication of a 1964 Warhol portrait.

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts established the board in 1995 to certify the authenticity of Warhol works.

Among pieces the board denied authentication are a great number of “Brillo boxes” made in Malmo, Sweden, in 1990, three years after Warhol's death at 59, and 44 paintings made by Rupert Jasen Smith, Warhol's main off-site printer between 1977 and 1987.

Warhol produced a variety of works that often involved collaborators who included off-site printers. The board routinely denied the authenticity of silkscreens made without Warhol's direct supervision.

The most famous of those are stamped “Sunday B. Morning,” produced by a European printer in the 1970s, based on a portfolio Warhol made in 1967 of 10 screen print portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Widely known as having been produced without Warhol's authorization, they are in production to this day and rarely sell for more than $1,000 retail or a few hundred dollars at auction.

Of the print up for auction, Berkovitz said: “There will be virtually no realistic way of proving authenticity, especially since no other examples are known or could be referred to in previous sales, exhibitions, or illustrations.”

Berkovitz pointed out the print is not listed in “Andy Warhol Prints: A Catalogue Raisonne 1962-1987” (2003, D.A.P/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts/Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), considered the definitive guide to Warhol's print production from 1962 until his death.

“I doubt that any other examples of this print have been offered or seen before,” Berkovitz said. “Without ironclad provenance, it would be all but impossible to prove this print is authentic.”

Last year at Christie's New York, a photo booth strip of Nico by Warhol sold for $7,500. It's unclear whether the attribution of this print to Warhol, or the interest in Nico, will translate to dollars.

The silkscreen is the star lot among period furniture, pottery, perfume bottles, clocks and artwork, including more than a half-dozen pastels by a much less famous American artist, William Henry Chandler (1854-1928), that will be offered for bidding at the Labor Day sale.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media.

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