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Rummaging Through the Andy Warhol Estate

The public is about to get what it always wanted from the late Andy Warhol: a good look at his private life. One of the 20th Century’s most celebrated and secretive men, the influential Pop artist made a cult of his fame, but only his closest associates and friends knew the truth: He was born to shop and he died as a pack rat.

Warhol shopped for bargains every day, buying everything from Miss Piggy memorabilia to Art Deco furniture, from space toys to Roy Lichtenstein’s early Pop paintings, and he squirreled it all away. The entire accumulation--divided into 2,500 lots--will be offered to the public in a 10-day auction, April 23 to May 3, at Sotheby’s in New York.

One of the most amazing revelations about Warhol’s collections is that they were all crammed into one house--but what a house and what a mess. He moved into a six-story Manhattan townhouse in 1974 with collections in boxes that he never unpacked. For the next 12 years (until his death last year), he continued to accumulate until only the kitchen and one bedroom functioned as anything other than storerooms.

“There’s no number on the door, but you’ll see a pair of columns. Just ring the bell,” said Diana Levitt, head of Sotheby’s press office, who arranged for my visit. At the appointed hour, the door of a sedate brick dwelling on East 66th Street swung open on a sight that became increasingly bizarre.

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The dark, traditional interior seems better suited to a dowager with a formal life style than a kinky fellow who turned himself into an artwork, but peculiar furnishings and eclectic decor suggest that Warhol’s acquisitive passion ran rampant through antique shops and swap meets.

When Sotheby’s got the job of auctioning the estate, two experts moved in with computer terminals and began to catalogue the contents of stacks, piles, crates, cupboards and closets. With the help of two dozen curators and other employees, they eventually combed through the cache, transferring most items to a warehouse and curatorial offices. In the process they made the house livable while retaining the character of the collections.

But even in the currently antiseptic version of Warhol’s house, you find an entry room that features a 3-foot-tall head of Napoleon (Antonio Canova’s original plaster) sitting on a gilded mahogany table that sports dolphin legs and carved paws. Three early Lichtensteins hang in a parlor furnished with Pierre Legrain’s sharkskin desk and cabinet and other Art Deco treasures that cause aficionados’ hearts to palpitate.

Each floor contains two big rooms, divided by a commodious landing and a wide staircase. A skinny elevator makes the trip quicker, but the stairs are more fun. As you wander through the grand dining room, upward to two sitting rooms and climb another flight of stairs, you discover that Warhol slept in a canopied Federal-period bed in a room decked out with Navajo rugs, a massive Federal mirror, a Tiffany lamp, American primitive paintings and a frieze inspired by Directoire wallpaper. What do you call this: Victorian-Tribal-Early American Schlock?

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When Warhol bought the house, he returned it to its original condition, pulling up wall-to-wall carpeting and other evidence of modern taste. Jed Johnson, a decorator who lived with him for several years, did quite a number with stenciled patterns on bedroom walls and ceilings (some of them borrowed from Mad King Ludwig’s castle, Neuschwanstein), faux marble columns in hallways and faux bird’s-eye-maple woodwork in one sitting room, but the house retains the traditional aura of somber wealth.

The furniture, art and bric-a-brac are a decidedly different matter. There’s no accounting for an artist who collected American Federal furniture and Indian baskets, Art Deco silver and Fiesta ware, Salvador Dali jewelry and satin slippers. Or at least there’s no easy way of explaining the breadth of Warhol’s taste.

It doesn’t help much to consider specific categories. American Federal and Art Deco styles were Warhol’s most frequent choices of furniture, but he also bought Egyptian Revival pieces, Thonet bent-wood chairs and a smattering of ‘50s material.

Perusing rows of tea sets in his office, Sotheby’s silver specialist Ian Irving noted that the chic, sleek lines of French Art Deco dominated Warhol’s preference, but he also bought hideously ornate American pieces.

Rooting around in the collectibles--bags of Bakelite bracelets, shelves of Coca-Cola memorabilia, shop signs and food tins--curator Dana Hawkes pointed out a “kitschy” flair and a fondness for advertising and commercial art that suit an artist who elevated those fields to the status of fine art.

The details of Warhol’s hoarding instincts have just been published by Sotheby’s (with Abrams) in a six-volume catalogue (available for $95 at your local bookstore and sold in individually priced volumes at Sotheby’s). Sprinkled with memories of the artist’s buying sprees, written by members of his inner circle, the catalogue itself is probably destined to become a collector’s item. But it’s the staggering list of Warhol’s collections that has art watchers reeling now: 1,659 pieces of Russel Wright pottery, 267 watches, 72 Navajo blankets and rugs, 61 lots of early 19th-Century American furniture, 37 Art Deco cigarette cases, 33 works by Man Ray, 18 by Marcel Duchamp, 12 Rauschenbergs.

Sotheby’s will display all 6,000 items in a round of exhibitions at the firm’s New York galleries just prior to the sale, but Southern Californians don’t have to wait to get a taste of Warhol’s taste. A preview sampling of 73 auction lots begins an international tour Thursday through next Sunday at Sotheby’s Beverly Hills office (308 N. Rodeo Drive). This first-ever public viewing of Warhol’s estate will include Lichtenstein’s “Laughing Cat” (expected to fetch $200,000 to $300,000), David Hockney’s colored pencil “Portrait of Andy Warhol” ($60,00-$80,000), a Kwakiutl wood mask ($12,000-$18,000), 12 pieces of Art Deco jewelry (around $2,000 each) and a glittering assortment of silver.

The auction is expected to total between $10 million and $15 million in sales, though some observers speculate that the sum will soar much higher. “Warhol was almost a folk hero and there’s a natural curiosity about what made him tick. Any time you have a famous person, that means more interest in the sale and that translates into more competition and higher prices,” said John L. Marion, chairman of Sotheby’s North America.

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Estimated prices of individual lots range from $100 (for four or five cookie jars) to $350,000 (for Jasper Johns’ painting, “Screen Piece”). Proceeds will benefit the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, set up in the artist’s will to “support and award grants to cultural institutions and organizations in the United States and abroad.”

Ticking off the estate’s top drawing cards, Marion said: “For rarity, the Art Deco material, for value the contemporary art, for American interest the American classical furniture, and I think women will come to buy jewelry that belonged to Andy Warhol.”

Not since the sale of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge’s estate 12 years ago has there been “anything approaching the diversity and value” of the Warhol auction, Marion said, “and that (earlier affair) included yard sales at two big houses in New Jersey and New York.”

As Marion suggests, Andy fans will probably turn out in droves to buy his possessions. At the same time, Andy watchers will wonder what it all means. The artist who answered interviewers’ questions, “Uh, yes” or “Uh, no,” remains an enigma to people who know he was famous but can’t figure out why.

If his obsessive bargain hunting and hoarding indicate an astonishing degree of insecurity for a celebrity, that jibes with accounts of Warhol’s relentless pursuit of portrait subjects as his “bread and butter” long after he could afford caviar.

But there’s something else going on here: a sensibility nourished by the vernacular, the vulgar and the fun. Warhol had no affinity for Abstract Expressionism, the reigning style during his formative years. He loved mass-produced images, famous people and manufactured things. To replace the highly vaunted self-expression with Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes was nothing less than a revolt, but the pallid waif never uttered a battle cry. He simply read the pulse of his time.

Like Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There,” Warhol liked to watch. He lived on the surface of life, reveling in appearances of the commercial glut around him and his own myth. He was the ultimate consumer in a consumer society, except that he didn’t consume what he bought. He probably just liked the way it looked.


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