Pietro Psaier (1936-2004) is said to have been an Italian painter who was responsible for thousands of works of pop art. Almost nothing is known about Psaier. While it isn’t unusual for an artist to be a recluse who shies away from the public eye, the case of Pietro Psaier is much stranger than that: Nobody really knows if he ever existed.
Psaier’s existence was first acknowledged in a press release in 1963, which contained many details of his identity. Born near Rome in 1936, his father was a concept car designer for Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. His first known works were a series of nude studies from 1950. In the sixties Psaier moved to Madrid and then New York. While working as a waiter at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, he met Andy Warhol. Known as ‘Peter the Italian’, it is alleged that Psaier and Warhol were once lovers and that he worked at ‘The Factory’, Warhol’s aluminum foil-and-silver-paint-lined studio on East 47th Street in Manhattan.
During the seventies, Psaier worked on commission for many celebrities, producing works, among others, for Keith Moon, Oliver Reed and Michael Caine. His life then appears to have evolved into a nomadic, drug-fuelled odyssey that took him between California, Mexico and Madrid. In the mid-eighties Psaier, to escape his creditors, undertook a trip to Tibet, Nepal, and India working in a variety of styles from conventional portraiture and illustration to pop art and assemblage. Psaier’s wanderings eventually led him to settle down in Sri Lanka, where he was lost without a trace in the tsunami of 2004. Interestingly, the local authorities have no record of Psaier.
Pietro Psaier has become a familiar name in auction catalogues over the past 15 years. Paintings, seemingly influenced by or purportedly made with Warhol, have appeared at some of the top art auction houses in New York, England and Spain. However, Psaier’s increase in popularity has also raised the question if he actually existed. There are no birth or death records and very few photographs of Psaier, the most well-known being taken with Warhol. For a man who was so close to Warhol it seems rather odd that there exists only a single photo of them together. Vincent Fremont, co-founder of the Andy Warhol Foundation states, “I was always with Andy and I performed the employees payments. I do not remember any Psaier and there is no mention of him in Warhol’s diaries. If he had existed and had attended the Factory, I could not have failed to have met him.”
However, London art auctioneer John Nicholson who has a large collection of Psaier’s works offers evidence to the contrary. Many of Psaier’s work owned by Nicholson are impressed with what appears to be the Factory verification stamp confirming them as joint works between Warhol and Psaier. He also offers a number of additional works, not linked to Warhol, including architectural drawings and designs for cars, all signed and some dated as early as 1950. There also is an interview with Psaier dated February 25, 1990, complete with a photograph of the artist, from the now defunct Madrid newspaper El Independiente Jovenes. Spanish psychiatrist Carlos Langelaan Alvarez claimed that he treated Psaier between 1979 and 1992 and that he met Warhol at a Psaier exhibition in Madrid in 1983.
Despite the lack of official documentation to prove his existence, there is a vast body of work attributed to him. If Pietro Psaier were an elaborate hoax, it would have happened on an industrial scale stretching back four decades across several continents. Since most of his paintings sell for a few hundred dollars, it is hard to imagine that somebody would go to the trouble of creating and maintaining a legend over the span of forty years for economic gain. Today, most collectors are not interested in his connection to Warhol or the controversy about his existence and buy Psaier’s work simply based on artistic merit.