Wednesday, May 31, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Liz’ Suit Rattles Branches on the Warhol Family Tree

MANHATTAN (CN) - The Andy Warhol Foundation's recent lawsuit to block the $20 million sale of an allegedly stolen Elizabeth Taylor portrait has sent shockwaves through the Pop-Art icon's family.

Though the foundation says their namesake's former bodyguard, Agusto Bugarin, stole "Liz" and then waited decades to sell it as potential challengers died off, two of Warhol's nephews came to Bugarin's defense in exclusive interviews with Courthouse News.

Like the rest of Andy's family, James and George Warhola have kept their Slovakian surname intact. Unlike their cousin, Donald Warhola, however, James and George have no association with the foundation. Four years ago, Donald took over for his late father, John, as trustee of an arts organization created in Warhol's will.

Donald did not respond to a request for comment, but James shared his letter to the foundation's president, Joel Wachs, warning that the accusations against Bugarin are a "grave mistake," insulting a "most trustworthy assistant."

"It's absolutely bizarre to me that Agusto is being portrayed as this grand thief," James wrote on Nov. 17. "I have to think that the foundation's lawyers are lacking in first-hand knowledge of my uncle's relationship with the Bugarin family. ... My uncle adored the Bugarin family and he was very generous with them."

Following in his uncle's footsteps, James had just graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in illustration before moving to New York in 1977.

Pittsburgh-born James said he spent about a decade regularly visiting the man for whom he named his best-selling children's book "Uncle Andy," before the pop artist's tragic death in 1987 during routine gallbladder surgery.

"I'm about the age that he died," James said. "I'm 59. He died at 58. Way too young, of course."

Watching Warhol illustrate shoes at a young age inspired James' career in juvenile literature, the nephew explained.

James added that those 10 "treasured" years spent near his uncle were also filled with memories of Bugarin, a man he says the foundation's lawsuit mischaracterizes from the outset.

"My uncle never had bodyguards," James said.

Bugarin has publicly denied the foundation's allegations, saying Warhol gave "Liz" to him as a favor three decades ago for discreet renovation work.

Though there are at least two entries in the definitive edit of "The Andy Warhol Diaries" that refer to Bugarin as a bodyguard, James insisted that he uncle was being facetious.

"My uncle was always joking," Warhola said. "He always had a great sense of humor, and Agusto is a small guy."

Indeed, Warhol teases Bugarin about his height in the first of the diary entries about him, dated Christmas Day of 1980. The passage describes their meeting via Bugarin's sisters, who served as the artist's longtime maids.

"I'd like to get Nena and Aurora's brother Agosto to be a bodyguard, although he's like only two feet high, but he's just out of the Marine Corps and it's 'Yes, sir!' and 'No, sir!' and he's great," Warhol wrote.

Agusto stood at 5-foot-4 and weighed 132 lbs. when Warhol first hired him, Bugarin's son Augie told Courthouse News.


A picture of Agusto with Warhol from around this time shows him looking about half a head shorter than the artist and as thin as his famously waifish boss.

"It wasn't exactly like [Agusto] was Rambo, you know?" James remarked.

The second entry of Warhol's diaries describing Bugarin as a bodyguard is more serious.

Dated May 4, 1981, it begins: "I had a death threat. I'll get to it."

The passage goes on to relate how an unnamed (and apparently, unknown) musician had delusions that Warhol stole the Rolling Stones song "Miss You" from him and passed it on to Mick Jagger. Warhol spent the rest of the day buying a camouflage hunter's hat and other disguises to protect himself, before speaking to law enforcement.

"A Detective Rooney or something like that from the NYPD came over," Warhol wrote. "And Risa Dickstein, she's Interview's lawyer, said she has a detective we can hire, but I'm going to hire Agosto to be my bodyguard and go places with me."

The episode echoes a 1968 attempt on Warhol's life involving would-be assassin Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist who was convinced that the pop-artist had tried to steal her screed, "The SCUM Manifesto," short for "The Society for Cutting Up Men."

After following Warhol into his studio, the Factory, Solanas fired three times. The third shot went through Warhol's lungs, spleen, liver, stomach and esophagus, requiring life-saving surgery.

In light of her paranoid schizophrenia, Solanas got a lenient three-year sentence for "reckless assault with intent to harm."

The head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation says the incident changed Warhol's life forever.

"The very public, outgoing pop artist became much more guarded and reclusive," a blog post from executive director Andrew Berman states. "He spent much of the rest of his life worried that Solanas (who stalked him by phone for a while after her release from prison) would try to shoot him again."

James Warhola denied that his uncle's brush with death dampened his gregarious public persona.

Referring to the publication Warhol founded, James said he has "talked to many people who got signed copies of Interview magazines from just bumping into him on the street."

Indeed, James said his uncle did not let the Solonas incident encumber his delight in the public sphere for long.

No other entries in the diary appear to depict Bugarin protecting Warhol's life.

For James, tagging Bugarin as a "bodyguard" in court is the foundation's way of "diminishing his role" with the family.

"You see, they could never portray him as an assistant because the lawsuit would never sound right, if they were suing his assistant," he said. "And they had to go with the bodyguard label."

James said Bugarin was really his uncle's "right-hand man," helping mix paint and stretch canvases as part of a uniquely intimate relationship with Andy.

"My uncle very rarely brought anyone from the studio to his home," he said. "His home was a very private place. Agusto and his sisters were entitled to that kind of relationship with my uncle."

But that was decades ago. "The last time that I saw Nena and Aurora was when crying on my dad's shoulder at the house on the day that my uncle died," James said.

He added that the foundation has not answered his November letter.

"They don't want to hear it because they're after this picture, and it's a very valuable prize if they succeed," James said.

George Warhola, who like James is a son of Andy's eldest brother Paul, shared his brother's theory on the Bugarin lawsuit.

"They'd take anything off of anybody at the foundation, if they could," said George, who took up their late father's business in a scrap-metal yard. "It's just the way I feel."

George described his cousin Donald as a "puppet" of the foundation.

"They have to have some family on [the board]," he said.

George's brother James did credit the foundation as a "great organization" for securing his uncle's legacy, but worried about fallout from the Bugarin lawsuit.

He cited an unsuccessful class action that accused the foundation of trying to control the market for Warhol's work through a supposed authentication-board conspiracy.

Though plaintiff Joe Simon-Whelan ultimately retracted his conspiracy claims in a 2010 settlement, the protracted litigation drew unfavorable attention to how Warhol works are authenticated, and the Andy Warhol Authentication Board folded shortly thereafter.

Warhol often never signed or had others execute his works, and the litigation brought public attention to the difficulty of confirming their provenance.

"Even though they ultimately won that case, I feel that their reputation was damaged because of it because they didn't handle it ideally," James said. "I just don't want them to damage their reputation on this case."

As for the foundation, its lawyers appear confident that they have drawn all the right conclusions. They remained tight-lipped on the points James Warhola made.

"We stand by the allegations in the complaint," Luke Nikas of Boies, Schiller & Flexner said in a statement.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.