Will the Warhol Foundation’s $100 Million Art Sale Turn Into a Damien Hirst-Style Market Stunt?

Andy Warhol, “Car Crash,” 1978 (courtesy (illustration courtesy Hyperallergic)

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts must be pretty frustrated. First, in October of 2011, they dissolved their Andy Warhol Authentication Board and decided that they would no longer spend time sorting out imitation Warhols because the task became too controversial — they were getting sued by collectors too often for passing on their decisions on imitation Warhols. Now, the foundation is getting rid of their own Warhol collection. The institution is going to sell its inventory of paintings, collages, photographs, and archival materials from Warhol’s estate, reports Kelly Crow in the Wall Street Journal, and instead focus on developing their extremely active art-related grant program.

The Foundation will auction off more than 20,000 works for an estimated total of $100 million through Christie’s auction house, kicking off with a November 12 auction of 350 works in New York. If the burgeoning Warhol market, which seems to just keep rising, is any indication, the grand total might be much higher. But then the sheer scale of the foundation’s holdings might tip prices in a different direction.

Art critic James Panero described the Warhol sell-off as the art market’s “Facebook IPO” moment, making reference to the now famously unsuccessful move when the company debuted at $40 per share and rapidly sunk to a current $18.58. Whether because of an inflated value or a botched IPO process, the stock’s value tanked. Might the same happen with the value of Warhol’s works? Mega-collector Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns one of the largest collections of Warhols in the world, told Crow that he worries that the sale will “dilute the Warhol brand by flooding the market.” In other words, the avalanche of new market-ready Warhols will raise supply to the point that the same (or less) demand won’t sustain the artist’s current high prices, which means bad news for collectors in it just for the money.

The concern that Warhol’s brand will be diluted brings to mind another art sell-off, namely Damien Hirst’s infamous 2008 Sotheby’s sale, in which the artist went directly to the auction house to sell 223 works in just 24 hours. The sale exceeded its $177.6 million estimate to take in $200.7 million and broke the record for a single-artist auction, despite the unfavorable economic climate (at the time, Mugrabi called it a “phenomenon”). The Hirst sale was an outrageous success, but the aftermath hasn’t been quite so favorable. The art market continued to fall in the coming years, Damien Hirst turned to painting bad knock-offs of Francis Bacon (which never sold quite so well as his sculptures), and his reputation as king of the art market decayed into something more like the jester.

In 2010, Warhol’s work accounted for a massive 17 percent of all contemporary auction sales with a total of $313 million. The artist’s reputation is far more secure than Damien Hirst’s, but a sell-off on the scale of the foundation’s could certainly impact Warhol’s prices in the short term. The good news for collectors is that the foundation’s holdings aren’t masterpieces — the works cover the artist’s entire career and range from polaroid snapshots to “Three Targets,” a 19-foot-long silkscreen expected to fetch at least $1 million. That Christie’s is spacing out the sales will also help keep prices stable.

“We’re converting art into money,” foundation chairman Michael Straus told the Wall Street Journal, but at least it’s for a good cause. The proceeds from the sale will increase the Warhol Foundation’s $225 million endowment and go toward expanding its grant programs. In 2010 the foundation gave out $9,358,143 in cash grants, 45 percent of its total budget.

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