Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A state-owned gaming facility in Aachen got rid of its two paintings by the Pop Art icon to partly fund a new casino. Could this set a dangerous precedent for publicly owned art?
Two Andy Warhol artworks sold for a combined $152 million Wednesday night in New York. Both of them used to hang in a government-owned casino in Germany, making national arts advocates worried that a dangerous precedent has been set for unloading publicly owned art.
The Christie's auction saw "Triple Elvis" sell for $82 million and "Four Marlons" for $70 million to two anonymous bidders. Both belonged to WestSpiel, a casino operator in Germany owned by state-run NRW.Bank.
While that's certainly an impressive windfall for the casino operator, the German Culture Council calls the sale a "black day" for art. Its director, Olaf Zimmerman, tells German website, The Local that a "Pandora's box has been opened. We're worried that now other [towns] or states in difficulty could follow this example."
The paintings had been on display in a casino in the city of Aachen since the late 1970s after WestSpiel bought them for a combined $185,000, according to a New York Times article last September. In 2009, once casino officials realized just how valuable the pieces were, the works were put in storage.
Last month, 26 state museum directors across Germany wrote an open letter declaring that the sale of WestSpiel's Warhols could set a bad example for other state entities hoping to plug budget holes, writing that "a precedent is being created that [towns], publicly owned companies and the future might follow. Public property and museum property would no longer be safe."
WestSpiel operates six casinos and has plans to build a new one in Cologne. According to The Local, WestSpiel says that more than $100 million of the money from its Warhols will go towards a financial restructuring of the bank that owns it as well as construction of its Cologne project.
Both Aachen and Cologne are located in the North Rhine-Westphalia state. Its finance minister, Norbert Walter-Borjans, says the other $57 million from the sale will go to "the public good" but The Local reports that he can't confirm if any of the money will go towards arts funding.