Is the Warhol Foundation finally running out of artworks? Since 1991, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has been discretely selling the vast inventory of paintings, drawings, prints and photos left in the Warhol estate after the death of the celebrated Pop artist in 1987 -- with the resulting revenues earmarked for the foundation's philanthropic activities.
Needless to say, the art-market demand for Warhol works is stronger than ever. But according to some dealers (who declined to be quoted for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with the foundation), the foundation has very little left to sell.
The Warhol Foundation's prints and drawings are handled by Tim Hunt, who was initially hired as curator of the estate in '87. In the early 1990s, letters were sent to museums in North America, offering them first pick of the inventory, which included 14,000 prints. European museums had recognized Warhol's prominence long before American museums and had already collected in depth, particularly in Germany.
SoHo dealer Ronald Feldman was given exclusive access to the unpublished prints and trial proofs, since Ronald Feldman Fine Arts had been publishing most of Warhol's work during the last years of his life (including the portfolios "Ten Portraits of Jews," "Myths," "Endangered Species," "Ads" and "Moonwalk").
Feldman sales director Marco Nocella recalled that in the early days, although there was great interest in iconic Warhol works like the Marilyn and Soup Can prints, the later unpublished material, and the trial proofs in particular, were a hard sell. "The trial proofs were too oddball for collectors, who were hardly excited by the prospect of owning a unique trial-proof pink Santa Claus when the regular edition was available," Nocella said.
In fact, according to Nocella, Frayda Feldman published an expanded third edition of the catalogue raisonne in 1997 -- including these trial proofs -- in part to provide a new comfort level for collectors. The strategy seems to have worked, since during the last few years, the trial proofs have begun to surpass the editioned works in sales. In 2003, for instance, Sotheby's New York sold a trial proof of Warhol's portrait of James Dean from Rebel without a Cause (from the "Ads" portfolio) for $51,000, while the following year a work from the regular edition sold for $39,000.
Recently Warhol's late work -- such as the Camouflage paintings -- has been re-evaluated, thanks to exhibitions such as the 2002 Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Collectors and dealers have begun to seek out the prints at the foundation, too, despite their not being signed.
This interest in unsigned works may come to a screeching halt, however. With the Warhol Foundation Art Authentication Board's highly publicized rejection of some Warhol works that had been considered authentic for many years, collectors and dealers have been worried about buying unsigned pieces, despite the foundation's assurance that it has never rejected a work purchased directly from the estate.
The foundation's dwindling inventory does still include a number of signed editions, such as the "Skulls" portfolio (1976) and the "Hammer and Sickle" portfolio (1979), but dealers grumble that this material is difficult to sell because of its content.
Still, as the dwindling supply of prints contributes to a growing demand for Warhol's works, it is clear that even these prints will find a market.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is a New York art dealer who writes on art. This article first appeared in slightly different form in Art on Paper magazine.