Warhol Foundation Will Donate or Sell Its Whole Collection

Robin Pogrebin
New York Times
September 5, 2012

Read the full article at nytimes.com

Beginning this fall the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts will disperse its entire collection of Warhols, donating some and selling others through Christie’s auction house as it shifts almost exclusively into a grant-making organization, foundation officials said in interviews.

The sales will take several years to complete and are expected to garner about $100 million, increasing the foundation’s endowment, from which it makes grants to nonprofit arts organizations.

Though the foundation no longer holds any big-ticket works by Warhol, it still possesses a bevy of paintings, prints, photographs and drawings, some of which the public has never seen. They include “Three Targets,” a large horizontal black-and-white canvas of paint and silk-screen depicting three targets with gunshots, expected to sell for $1 million to $1.5 million; a Jacqueline Kennedy collage from the 1960s, estimated at $200,000 to $300,000; and a “Self-Portrait in Fright Wig” from a ’70s Polaroid print, estimated at $15,000 to $20,000.

Under its unusual exclusive deal with Christie’s, to be announced Thursday, the foundation will sell some of the works through live auctions, the first on Nov. 12, supplemented by online auctions that will begin in February and private sales.

Alberto Mugrabi, whose family holds one of the world’s largest collections of Warhols, said that despite the lack of blockbuster pieces, he was concerned about the impact a sale of such scope would have.

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt prices because none of the stuff is of great significance,” he said. “But still, it’s irresponsible. It’s like sending masses of cattle to be slaughtered.”

With the online auctions Christie’s expects to expand its Internet presence as well as the geographical and demographic scope of its audience.

Artist foundations have become an increasingly popular way for estates to control the artists’ affairs after death, and they typically sell a few works a year to finance their operations, as the Warhol Foundation has done since its inception in 1987.

In selling its remaining inventory, it has decided to focus on making grants, typically about $13 million a year. With proceeds from the sales the foundation expects to increase its $225 million endowment and hopes to help fill the void left by declining private and government arts support. Christie’s will earn a varying percentage on each sale.

The work will be sold at a variety of price points, with some in the million-dollar range, many under $100,000 and a few under $10,000. As a result Christie’s expects to attract a wide spectrum of buyers, including those who cannot easily get to New York for specific live sales.

“Remove the barrier of location and time, and you open it up to the broadest buying public possible,” said Amy Cappellazzo, the chairwoman of postwar and contemporary development at Christie’s. “I think if Andy were alive, he would have very much liked that.”

With a mission to advance the visual arts the Warhol Foundation has awarded nearly $250 million in grants to hundreds of museums and other nonprofit arts groups nationwide over the last 25 years. Precisely how many works remain in the foundation’s collection is unclear because the foundation does not make public its inventory. Joel Wachs, the president of the foundation, said the number was “in the thousands.”

This year the foundation got out of the authentication business, partly because legal disputes — over its verification process for works whose owners said they were by Warhol — were a financial drain.

“That’s not the way we think our time and assets should be spent,” said Michael Straus, the foundation’s chairman. “We’d rather see our money go to artists than lawyers.”

Foundation executives said they settled on Christie’s because of its long history with the foundation; its Warhol expertise; and its creative proposals. “They have a deep knowledge of Warhol and his market,” Mr. Straus said. “There’s an innovative spirit that seemed upbeat, contemporary, global — in keeping with Warhol’s spirit.”

For Christie’s the arrangement represents an attractive way to showcase its efforts to sell art over the Internet, a process it has used in sales like the one of Elizabeth Taylor’s belongings and that it hopes to expand.

“We are looking forward to being able to make this over time available for other types of works from other sources,” said Steven Murphy, chief executive of Christie’s. “Online is now its own medium for interaction with art purchasing.”

Some people may minimize the sale as a way for the foundation to clear out Warhol’s lesser works; the cache to be sold at the live auction in November is expected to bring about $20 million. By contrast Warhol’s “Double Elvis (Ferus Type)” alone sold in May at Sotheby’s for $33 million, or $37 million with commission.

But Christie’s said that some gems remain in the collection, and that many of the smaller items have historic value, like Warhol’s collection of black-and-white Polaroids. “There is so much work that has really not been seen by most people,” Mr. Wachs said. “They don’t have to be the most expensive to be the best.”

While acknowledging that “there are no soup cans or Marilyn” in the collection, Ms. Cappellazzo said each photograph, painting, print and drawing offers a window into Warhol’s creative process. “It is like a hologram,” she said. “When you break it apart, even the small parts are still pure Andy and have total Warholismo.”

Though some might worry that such a concentration of sales will flood the market, depressing the value of Warhols, Christie’s officials said they did not think that would occur. There is an unusually great appetite for Warhol worldwide, they said, and they will be measuring the pace of sales and the availability of works on the market as they decide how much of the inventory to bring forward. Ms. Cappellazo said she believes Christie’s now sells more Warhols per year than any other artist.

“Andy is singularly one of the most important artists of the 20th century and arguably the most important artist in our market,” Ms. Cappellazzo said, adding of the many works, “We feel confident that the market will absorb them.”