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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bodyguard Denies Stealing Andy Warhol’s ‘Liz’

MANHATTAN (CN) - In his first public reaction to a blockbuster art lawsuit, an attorney for Andy Warhol's former bodyguard said his client "emphatically denies" trying to sell a stolen painting of Elizabeth Taylor that he allegedly hid for more than 30 years.

Agusto Bugarin, whom the Andy Warhol Foundation labeled a "liar and a thief" in a Friday complaint, maintains that Warhol gave him a "Liz" painting as a present, attorney Henry Welt said in a phone interview.

"Mr. Bugarin denies the allegations in that complaint and says emphatically that the painting is his," Welt said.

New York County Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kern signed a temporary restraining order Monday that prevents Bugarin and Taglialatella Galleries from moving or selling the painting, pending a Nov. 5 hearing on the matter.

In Friday's blistering complaint, the Andy Warhal Foundation for the Visual Arts opened by saying that "Bugarin is a patient thief, but a thief nonetheless."

It says Bugarin waited decades until anyone who "could challenge his ownership of the work had died" before he "teamed up" with a gallery "purporting to deal in contemporary art" to sell the iconic work through a fabricated story.

Bugarin said Warhol gave "Liz" to him as a favor three decades ago for discreetly renovating a New York apartment for Warhol's new lover, Jon Gould, after ending his relationship with Jed Johnson in 1984.

The foundation scoffed at the notion that Warhol would have gifted Bugarin such a valuable silkscreen.

"There is no indication that Warhol did or would have given his bodyguard a painting valued at the time in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - several multiples of Bugarin's annual salary," the seven-page complaint states.

The painting is now expected to fetch at least $20 million, the New York Daily News reported.

Brushing aside this argument, Welt countered: "If someone wants to know why Mr. Warhol did something, then they have to find a way to ask Mr. Warhol."

Warhol died in New York Hospital after routine gallbladder surgery in 1987.

Though Welt said Warhol's friendship with Bugarin is also "well-documented," the foundation insists that Bugarin's story is "contradicted by well-known facts about Warhol's life and works."

It says Bugarin's alleged 1984 timeline makes no sense since Warhol had ended his relationship with Johnson years earlier. Several years had also elapsed by 1984 since Gould moved into a house that Warhol acquired, according to the lawsuit.

"Liz" later resurfaced this year "under suspicious circumstances," the foundation says.

Claiming that Taglialatella continues to market the consigned art to prospective buyers even after learning of the theft allegations, the complaint accuses the Chelsea gallery of "dealing in stolen goods."

Welt represents the gallery as well and called these allegations "outrageous" and "really unforgiveable."

Taglialatella claims to have it checked with the Art Loss Registry and confirmed that it had not been reported stolen before marketing the painting. Bugarin and the gallery both invited "two senior employees" with the foundation to inspect the painting, and the foundation never raised objections until after it was slated for auction, Welt said.

The lawyer added that the gallery performed "an extraordinary amount of due diligence" on the painting.

This defense failed to impress Luke Nikas, the foundation's attorney from the Albany office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

"Bugarin's latest excuses are just as frivolous as his contradictory story about how he acquired the work," Nikas said in an email.

Court documents indicate that the gallery had planned to sell the painting in the next few weeks.

To convince the judge about the urgency of the restraining order, Nikas attached an email that Welt allegedly sent him on Oct. 23, detailing a plan to move ahead with a "November auction."

"I assume, from your client's stone silence that the foundation has lost interest in this situation," the alleged Welt email states. "This is to let you know that I am advising my clients that it would be irresponsible on their part to 'sit out' the next two weeks on the sidelines while the high value prospective buyers gather in NYC and then disperse back to their respective homes, and that my clients should move forward at this time."

The foundation seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Bugarin and Tagliatella for conversion and demands the painting's return.

Nikas said: "The foundation brings this action to prevent a thief and his gallery partner from profiting in stolen goods that would otherwise be used in furtherance of the foundation's charitable mission and purpose."

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