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Case Preview: Andy Warhol Foundation v. Bugarin

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Andy Warhol, “Liz” (ca. 1963).

By Jessica Preis*


In 2014, Agusto Bugarin, a one-time associate of Andy Warhol (b. 1928- d. 1987) found himself accused of stealing various Warhol works, including the extremely valuable piece entitled, Liz (the “Work”), portraying the actress, beauty icon, and business woman Elizabeth Taylor.

What was Bugarin’s relationship with the artist and how did he come to possess this and other Warhols?

In its complaint, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (the “Foundation”) refers to Bugarin as a bodyguard for the artist, a description derived from one Warhol reference. The Foundation claims that Bugarin stole the Work sometime in the 1980s. Also, the Foundation alleges that Bugarin waited over 30 years to eventually sell the Work and reap profits from his illicit actions. According to Warhol’s family members, however, Bugarin stands at 5’4 and weighs 135 pounds, and it is possible that he was merely a personal assistant, not a bodyguard. In his defense Bugarin argues that Warhol gave him the Work as a present out of gratitude for his services.

The Players:

        The Foundation is the beneficiary of the Warhol estate. It is responsible of holding and safekeeping all of the artist’s works in the Warhol Estate. In the case against Bugarin, the Foundation is represented by Luke Nikas, attorney with Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, who also  represented Defendant Ann Freedman in the De Sole v. Knoedler trial. Henry Welt is representing Bugarin and Taglialatella Galleries, the gallery through which Bugarin was attempting to sell the Work. The case was filed in New York Supreme Court, New York County.

The Conflicting Stories:

        By virtue of Bugarin’s occupation as one of Warhol’s bodyguards he had access to Warhol’s property. Bugarin alleges that he was involved in the cover-up of Warhol’s love affair with Jon Gould, Vice President for Corporate Communications at Paramount Pictures. Bugarin claims that Warhol asked him to renovate an apartment for Jon Gould who was moving to New York from California in 1984. Warhol also allegedly asked Bugarin to keep the renovation a secret because he wanted to keep the relationship under wraps since he recently broke up with his long time partner, Jed Johnson, an interior designer and film director.

According to Bugarin, after he worked on the apartment for about a week, he went to Warhol’s studio where he helped Warhol with a few works that Bugarin believed Sotheby’s intended to exhibit. Out of gratuity for his services, Warhol presented Bugarin with the Work, “synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas, measuring 42.5 inches by 44.25 inches, painted circa 1964.” Bugarin then kept the work for three decades until he attempted to sell it in 2014 with the assistance of Taglialatella Galleries.

The Foundation has put forward a series of events that starkly contrasts with Bugarin’s accounts of the events. The Foundation believes that Bugarin is a liar and a thief. Once the Foundation learned that Bugarin was attempting to sell the missing piece, a request was made for him to return it along with  four other works. There is no sign that Warhol would have given his bodyguard such a valuable painting that was already worth a great deal more than Bugarin’s annual salary in the 1980s.

The Foundation also asserts that “Bugarin’s version of the facts are nothing but fabrications.” For example, the Foundation has reasons to believe that Warhol ended his relationship with Johnson years earlier than 1984. Also, Gould moved into a New York home Warhol acquired years earlier. Not an apartment like Bugarin alleges. Additionally, the works Bugarin claims he assisted Warhol with sold years prior and were no longer in Warhol’s possession at the time. Finally, none of the works were actually exhibited at Sotheby’s in 1984. The Foundation ultimately believes that Bugarin stole the painting and tried to sell it only after everyone he thought could challenge the ownership of the work had died.

Remedies Sought:

        The Foundation claims they own the Work and have a right to possess it. Prior to 2014, Bugarin never disclosed that he owned the work, the Foundation was unaware it was under his control and had it listed in its records as stolen. Once the Foundation learned of its whereabouts, within Taglialatella’s possession, it demanded the return however the gallery refused to do so.

        After the Foundation’s requests were denied, it filed a complaint in October 2014 raising conversion and replevin claims. Conversion applies when someone intentionally interferes with personal property belonging to another person. Replevin is a legal procedure for claiming the right to have personal property returned from someone who does not have the right to hold it. The Foundation argues that Bugarin and Taglialatella have converted the work to their own use and therefore it should be returned. Furthermore, the Foundation alleges that due to this improper conduct, the Foundation has been damaged in regard to both claims. The Foundation’s property should be returned and converted back into proper hands.

        Moreover, the Foundation is requesting general and compensatory damages at trial. More specifically, the Foundation is asking for possession of the work, nominal damages, punitive damages, prejudgment and postjudgment interest at the maximum rate allowed by law, attorney’s fees, and other appropriate relief.

This case is as colorful and dynamic as the piece of art in question. Is Bugarin truly a dishonest thief as the Foundation alleges? Or did he receive the Work out of gratuity from Warhol, the renowned artist who once stated, “Employees make the best dates. You don’t have to pick them up and they’re always tax deductible.”

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*About the Author: Jessica Preis is a 3L at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She was a staffer on the Arts and Entertainment Law Journal and is fascinated by Art Law and Criminal Law.