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Rummaging Through the Andy Warhol Estate

February 21, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

NEW YORK — 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.

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?

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.

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