Warhol Foundation to liquidate art collection

The massive sale will flood market and devalue Warhols already out there, some fear.

Screen prints by Andy Warhol, including a portfolio of 10 Campbell’s Soup are hung at the Dulwich Picture Gallery ahead of a major new exhibition of the US artist’s work. (Ian Nicholson/CP)

Few among us have enjoyed the 15 minutes of worldwide fame he once predicted. But 25 years after his death, Andy Warhol’s own renown is as strong as ever. The resulting demand for his artwork is one of the reasons New York City’s Warhol Foundation has decided to liquidate its entire collection. That, and its desire to bolster its endowment, which helps fund galleries, exhibitions, visual arts projects and education. In November, it will begin selling more than 20,000 works through a series of live and online auctions expected to reap up to US$100 million.

The bulk of the pieces are expected to fetch modest prices—certainly compared to the $37 million that Warhol’s Double Elvis (Ferus Type) changed hands for back in May. Nonetheless, critics charge that flooding the market with thousands of works will devalue the Warhols already out there. Famed collector Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns upwards of 800 works by Warhol, has called the auction “irresponsible” and worries it will dilute the Warhol brand.

Those fears may be overstated, considering over the past decade Warhol’s images have been licensed for everything from smartphone covers to snowboards. Foundation chairman Michael Strauss is confident Warhol, who had few qualms about commercialization, would have endorsed the big sell-out.

Toronto-based private art dealer Sharon London Liss says there shouldn’t be any concern the auction will have an adverse effect on the value of Warhol’s art, either. Last year alone, more than US$346-million worth of his oeuvre was sold at auction.

However, Liss, who has worked with Warhols for more than a decade, appraising works for the Art Gallery of Ontario and other museums across the country, thinks collectors should be concerned about the foundation’s decision this year to cease its authentication business. As it is, legal disputes over verification have proved costly, and Liss says it could have a major impact on the market down the road.

“It’s really a quagmire out there with pieces that are not authenticated and will no longer be able to be,” she says. “In the future, anything with an estate stamp on it or an estate provenance will be considered the gold standard, while other works could be problematic to sell.”

The foundation’s Strauss told the New York Times the money spent on verification litigation wasn’t worth the trouble. “We’d rather see our money go to artists than lawyers,” he said.

To the upper echelons of the art world, much of the soon-to-be auctioned collection is of minimal consequence, with some pieces considered ephemera over actual artwork. Still, there will be plenty on offer that’s never been seen in public. One of the priciest pieces will be a 19-foot silkscreen canvas called Three Targets expected to go for about $1.5 million, while at the low end are thousands of Polaroids. They may be relatively cheap, but at least buyers will know they’re authentic.