Warhol Foundation auctions off inventory

In online, live and private auctions, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts is selling its collection, aiming to raise $100 million

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It's fun to imagine how much attention Andy Warhol might have lavished on his Facebook page. The pop artist and Olympian social networker obsessively documented his chameleon-esque life with cameras and a tape recorder decades before Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook.

"We think about that all the time over here," said Matt Wrbican, chief archivist at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side. "He was a great experimenter with media. It seems like he really couldn't be held down by any conventions as far as his artwork."

The Pittsburgh native's work moved beyond the bounds of conventional auctions earlier this month when Christie's in New York City concluded its first online-only sale of Warhol's lesser-known pieces -- paintings, Polaroids and prints -- generating $2.29 million, twice the overall pre-sale estimate.

It was part of a yearslong series of live, online and private auctions to benefit the Manhattan-based Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which makes grants to artists. By auctioning its Warhol collection, the foundation hopes to boost its endowment from $220 million to $320 million. The foundation announced that it would consign its collection to Christie's last September and kicked off the sales with a live auction last November that generated $17 million.

With the recent online auction, the ability to shop for a Warhol anywhere in the world was key to the sale's success, said Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of postwar and contemporary development at Christie's. She called this event "Andy for the people," noting that $600 -- the lowest bid estimate -- was "a starter price point for a work of art."

"The bidding lasted a week. It wasn't a temporal event. You could log on anywhere in the world and check on your bid. You could bid anonymously. You don't have to show up to do it. You don't have to get down to Christie's to Rockefeller Center in the middle of the day.

"Buying a painting for $20 million is an experience. You probably want to show up for that. The Internet works brilliantly for works under $100,000," she said.

Prices ranged from $600 to $70,000 for the highest priced item, a color lithograph that fetched $112,500. Statistics show that Christie's online-only auction attracted 65,000 visitors, 263 bidders and more than 1,500 bids from 36 countries.

Demand for Warhol's work is growing among art collectors in far-flung places.

"There were new registrants from countries in Asia, and that was heartening to see," Ms. Cappellazzo said.

Interest in Warhol is particularly high in China, where an encyclopedic show of his work organized here in Pittsburgh opened on Dec. 15 in Hong Kong. The exhibition, of which Christie's is a sponsor, will travel to Shanghai, Beijing and then Tokyo.

"The show has been really popular. Just last week, it passed the 200,000 mark for visitors. In Hong Kong, that's an incredibly high number," said Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum.

He believes Chinese people will continue to flock to the exhibition at its Shanghai and Beijing venues.

"Ai Weiwei, the No. 1 contemporary artist in China, is tremendously influenced by Warhol and has said as much," Mr. Shiner said.

Mr. Ai is one of 65 artists responding to the artist in the show "Regarding Warhol" now at the North Side museum. The Ai piece "riffs on Warhol while making a larger statement about Chinese culture," he said.

Sam Berkovitz, owner of Concept Gallery in Regent Square, said the Christie's auction results show that demand remains high for Warhol's work. "They're getting anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000 and as much as $15,000 for a Polaroid picture taken by Warhol."

In online-only auctions, Mr. Berkovitz said, "Internet bidders are becoming more and more confident about bidding. I think people also like the anonymity that the Internet gives them."

Ms. Cappellazzo acknowledged that only a handful of artists would be candidates for an online-only auction at Christie's.

"You really need an artist who has a range and variety of work, someone for whom prints are important," she said, citing examples such as Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Takashi Murakami.

Born one year before the stock market crash of 1929, Warhol was a child of the Depression who grew up in a family where "every penny mattered and they all had to work," Mr. Wrbican said.

"The fact that he did so many self portraits is pretty amazing. He really disliked his looks so much," he added.

"Even though he had such a tremendous output, there are so many people who want to have a little piece of him. People fight each other for these things. If you are an encyclopedic museum, you've got to have a Warhol," Mr. Wrbican said.

Christie's next online auction in the Warhol series will feature a selection of Studio 54-themed photographs, drawings and prints. It will be held next month to coincide with the 36th anniversary of the April 26, 1977, opening of the infamous New York nightclub.

As for what Warhol's Facebook page might have looked like, Ms. Cappellazzo said, "I think he would have had tons of pictures and tons of postings online. He would have used it to popularize some event he wanted to go to."

Mr. Shiner believes the artist would have had a personal Facebook page and another one called Andy Warhol Enterprises to make money.

"Everything would have been brightly colored and there would have been repetition of imagery. He was all about the brand and he was the brand."

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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First Published March 20, 2013 4:00 AM


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