Payday for an Acquisitive Instinct

Times Art Writer

As controversy over government support of the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photography dies down, art world business goes on as usual. Christie’s New York this week announced plans to auction Mapplethorpe’s collection of art and furniture, valued at more than $3 million. Proceeds of the Oct. 31 sale will go to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to benefit AIDS research and to photography collections at major museums.

The photographer, who died in November of AIDS at 42, established the foundation over a year ago and put about $500,000 into it before his death, according to attorney Michael Stout, executor of the estate. At his death, Mapplethorpe left the bulk of his estate to the foundation. Assets of the foundation could total $5 million to $25 million, depending on proceeds of the auction and how Mapplethorpe’s photographs are marketed by his studio, Stout said.

Christie’s auction of about 530 objects--divided into 193 lots--will not include any of Mapplethorpe’s photographic work. Among pieces to be sold are contemporary artworks, Impressionist and modern paintings, 19th-Century and Old Master drawings, prints, sculpture, decorative arts, furniture and photographs by other artists.

Nine of the most expensive items--including four works by Andy Warhol (valued from $30,000 to $1 million), a Tony Smith sculpture ($100,000 to $150,000), a small still life by Belgian Expressionist James Ensor ($300,000 to $400,000) and a landscape by French intimist Edouard Vuillard ($200,000 to $300,000)--will be sold separately in November sales of contemporary and modern art. (All estimates are preliminary and may be adjusted before the sale, according to Christie’s officials.)


The Mapplethorpe foundation and auction is patterned after “the Warhol model,” Stout said, though less money is involved. Warhol’s hoard of 10,000 objects brought $25.3 million in a 10-day sale last year at Sotheby’s. Auction proceeds, several pieces of real estate and some of the late artist’s work went to the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts benefiting nonprofit organizations that are involved with exhibitions, art education, historic preservation and urban planning. The foundation this year made 58 grants totaling nearly $2 million.

Mapplethorpe was a far more selective collector than Warhol, but he had strong acquisitive instincts. Confessing an addiction to collecting in a recent House and Garden interview, Mapplethorpe said, “I’m doing my best not to do what Andy did. For every great thing, he had 10 pieces of junk. I just don’t have room in my life for all that.” While Warhol stored his collection in stacks of boxes that eventually filled all but two rooms of his six-story townhouse on the Upper East Side, most of Mapplethorpe’s collection is displayed in his 3,500-square-foot loft and studio at 35 W. 23rd St., above a discount office furniture store.

The loft is a clean-lined, white-walled space artfully crammed with treasures and equipped with a photographic studio. Raw-boned Arts and Crafts furniture by Gustav Stickley mingles with high-tech coffee tables designed by Mapplethorpe, a Biedermeier mirrored shelf, one of George Nelson’s black marshmallow chairs from the ‘50s and delicate burr-wood desks attributed to Gio Ponti.

A rainbow of solid-color Italian glass bottles and vases fills a long eye-level shelf above a deck of cabinets. Scandinavian ceramics cluster near one side of the fireplace, while neoclassical statues sit on the hearth. Walls of a den area are almost completely covered with such objects as tribal masks, a crucifix, a cross-shaped mirror and small artworks ranging from a Brice Marden abstraction to 19th-Century drawings of animals and assorted images of male nudes.


Mapplethorpe acquired most of the objects to be auctioned during the ‘70s and ‘80s in New York, according to Dmitri Levas, his photography stylist and collecting partner. “Robert liked to find things that had already been found by stores. He didn’t like to go to flea markets,” Levas said.

“I’m a hunter myself. I would do the scouting. But he loved to collect. If I brought him a Polaroid (of a prospective purchase), he would really perk up,” Levas said.

Mapplethorpe’s first major collection consisted of photographs, which in 1982 he sold at Sotheby’s for $98,203. Around the same time, Sam Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s companion who died of AIDS in 1987, built a highly regarded photography collection, which he sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1984 for an undisclosed amount, reportedly about $5 million.

Several of the most valuable pieces in the sale were gifts or bequests from Wagstaff. Stout declined to state the total amount of Mapplethorpe’s inheritance from Wagstaff but said he got “several million dollars,” much of it in art. The most expensive contemporary piece in the auction, Warhol’s silk-screen on canvas, “Little Race Riot,” formerly belonged to Wagstaff. The four-panel work, currently in Warhol’s retrospective exhibition, is valued at $700,000 to $1 million. The Ensor and Vuillard paintings were also inherited from Wagstaff.


Many of the contemporary artworks came from trades with artists, according to Tina Summerlin, Mapplethorpe’s former studio manager. Among these are portraits of Mapplethorpe by Warhol (valued at $80,000 to $120,000), David Hockney ($50,000 to $75,000), Francesco Clemente ($10,000 to $15,000) and Don Bachardy ($1,000 to $1,500).

When Levas met Mapplethorpe, in 1980, the photographer already had his Arts and Crafts furniture and was beginning to buy glass. “The ‘50s were known for pretty wild shapes, but Robert went more for beautifully made, pure forms in the ‘50s glass and ceramics he collected,” Levas said. “He was basically a Minimalist who loved things that were simple in form and color, and he went at it in an obsessive way.”

Mapplethorpe also liked art that has “a strong masculine quality,” Levas noted. That quality is evident in dozens of drawings, photographs and prints and in the neoclassical sculpture that Mapplethorpe bought and photographed during the last year of his life.

“He had a keen eye for the history of photography and knew that classical busts were often the subject of 19th-Century photographs,” Levas said. But the sculptures were also a matter of convenience for the artist when he became too ill to schedule sittings for portraits or venture outside his studio, he said.


Mapplethorpe’s foundation and studio offices may move into the loft on 23rd Street, where he lived and shot all of his pictures since 1985. His former business office and printing facility, at 24 Bond St., will probably be sold, Stout said, but no decisions about the property have been made.

In the last months before his death, prices for Mapplethorpe’s photographs ranged from about $5,000 for prints to $20,000 for unique images. A current show at BlumHelman Gallery in Santa Monica offers 24x20-inch prints from editions of 10 for $10,000 and diptychs for $20,000. Mapplethorpe’s auction record is $16,500, set last April at Sotheby’s.

The foundation will take a “quite conservative” approach to marketing Mapplethorpe’s work, the attorney said. The studio will only print negatives that the photographer authorized and only in the small editions he intended. The foundation will maintain an archive of Mapplethorpe’s work and keep all one-of-a-kind pictures that he had in his possession at his death. Images produced in editions will be sold, at the rate of a few per year, by the Robert Miller Gallery in Manhattan.