A Pop Art Clearance Sale: Warhol Foundation Partners With Christie's to Sell Off Its Entire Collection

Warhol's "Endangered Species: San Francisco Silverspot," c. 1983
(© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. )

If you ever wanted to buy an Andy Warhol, now is your chance. This fall, thousands of works by the Pop icon will hit the market when the artist’s foundation deaccessions its entire collection through a combination of sales and donations. The paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and printed graphic material — which range in price from over $1 million to under $10,000 — will be sold through Christie’s in a series of single-artist live auctions on November 12 and a spate of online sales beginning February 2013. Private sales of the material will be conducted throughout the season. The entire cache is expected to bring in about $100 million.

The sale marks a shift for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which since 1987 has slowly sold off a handful of artworks per year to finance its grantmaking activities. “We have now chosen to mark the Foundation’s 25th anniversary year by expanding the scope of our art sales in order to increase our future grant-making capacity,” Michael Straus, chairman of the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation, said in a statement. At this point, few major works remain in the collection, but the sum total represents a massive cache of Warhol works never before seen by the public. (This also explains its relatively low price point considering the number of works on offer — a total of 20,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.) Christie's will take varying commissions on each sale, the New York Times reports. 

The foundation hopes selling off the remainder of the collection en masse will quickly grow its endowment from $225 million to $325 million, enabling it to increase its annual grants from $13 million to $18 to $20 million, according to Joel Wachs, the foundation’s president. Why do it all at once? “Over the last two years, we’ve seen cutbacks in funding for all arts organizations,” Wachs told ARTINFO. While the market for Warhol has never been stronger, it’s also never been more difficult to be a small art institution. “We try to be responsive to the constituents we serve and it seems that they need the help now more than ever,” he explained. 

Warhol is typically associated with stratospheric auction prices — the artist’s “Double Elvis (Ferus Type)” sold at Sotheby’s in May for $33 million and his “Marlon” silkscreen is estimated to sell for $20 million at Christie’s this fall. The foundation's remaining trove of works, however, skews toward the esoteric. It includes never-before-seen paintings like the black-and-white screenprint “Three Targets” (1985-86), which carries an estimate of $1-1.5 million and looks more like a Jasper Johns than a Warhol. The smaller items will be sold in online-only auctions similar to those held for Liz Taylor’s jewelry collection. Among the items on offer online is a selection of Warhol’s black-and-white Polaroids.

To those who have been following the Warhol Foundation’s moves for some time, the sale might not come as a shock. Last fall, the organization dissolved its authentication board due to mounting legal fees, explaining that it would rather spend millions of dollars per year on grants than on lawyers. But after a year of crunching numbers, cutting spending wasn’t enough. “It became clear that the only way to maximize our grantmaking capacity was partially to cut our expenses and partially to turn our art into cash and monetize our endowment,” Wachs said. He noted that the foundation has not decided precisely which works it will donate and which it plans to give away, but that “we will give away a lot, too.”

For Christie’s, the partnership also serves to cement its position both as an authority on Warhol and a pioneer in the field of online art sales. “Online is now its own medium for interaction with art purchasing,” Steven Murphy, the auction house’s CEO, told the Times.

Is it possible that setting thousands of new Warhol works loose on the market might devalue him in the long run? As it is, works by Andy Warhol comprised a staggering 17 percent of the contemporary art market in 2010, according to art market analyst ArtTactic. Collector Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns at least 800 Warhols, told the WSJ that the foundation would “dilute” the Warhol brand by pushing the products “out into the market like cattle.” Others diagree. “Warhol is the artist of the second half of the 20th century,” art advisor Wendy Cromwell told ARTINFO. “I think it’s impossible to flood the market.” In fact, she said, the more esoteric pieces might appeal to a collector who is passionate about Warhol but is priced out of his more iconic portraits or soup cans. (She recalled that when Christie’s sold off the estate of Donald Judd in 2006, art market observers also expressed concern that the supply would flood the market, but “if anything, the sale just pushed the market higher.”)

“The interest in Warhol is enormous worldwide,” said Wachs. “We want to be able to broaden our reach as much as possible.”