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.