Felix Salmon has a good post about the Warhol auction racket, if you can parse the Warhols. According to Salmon, seven same-sized large self-portraits exist, each painted in 1986. Christie’s claims “[a]ll the other versions are in museums or in foundations open to the public”, but only four are easily traced to such institutions: one in the Guggenheim, one in Fort Worth, and two in Pittsburgh. Remaining is the one Christie’s will auction May 11, and one sold at Sotheby’s last year, and another, which was described by Sotheby’s last year as part of a private collection.
So where are the two Warhols in question? Christie’s doesn’t want to say, but according to art world gossip recounted by Salmon, collector Peter Brant has the red one, and Bernard Arnault the purple. Both have semi-public foundations — or at least, in the case of Arnault, plans to create one — and that’s good enough for Christie’s.
Now, obviously using the words “public collection” to describe private collections with sharing intentions isn’t particularly accurate, and it’s good that Salmon called it out because ultimately it means the piece isn’t as rare as Christie’s claims. Collector Charles Saatchi does better than either Brandt and Arnault in respect to making his collection public — The Saatchi Gallery maintains regular hours — but that’s still no guarantee that he won’t sell the work. In fact, he has a bad reputation for unloading recently acquired art.
All this goes to say that even when private collections are made public, that doesn’t mean that a collector will love those works enough to never sell them. This makes a difference, because for a buyer, there’s a pretty big distinction between purchasing a work that will likely be the only one of its kind on the market, and owning a work of which two others are floating around. Surely this is exactly the kind of distortion that could inflate the painting’s sale price.