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Warhol “Athletes” commissioned for $800,000 to be sold for $28m

This is the first time a complete set of the series is on offer

A complete set of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen and acrylic paint “Athletes” series is being offered by the London dealer Martin Summers Fine Art for $28m. The ten portraits of leading sportsmen and women were commissioned from the artist by the Californian collector Richard Weisman in the late 1970s. They cost $800,000, and Warhol produced eight sets. This is the first time a complete set has been put up for sale; each is signed by the artist and the ­athlete depicted.

Mr Weisman, a nephew of Norton Simon, founder of the California museum which bears his name, was part of Warhol’s Factory in the 1970s. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, he said he has a great interest in sport and saw this project as a way of combining the worlds of sport and art: “I spoke to Andy about the idea; I knew he was a groupie and loved to meet famous people.”

Mr Weisman chose the subjects for the series from his own friends, including boxer Muhammad Ali, ice skater Dorothy Hamill, footballer Pelé, basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, tennis player Chris Evert, golfer Jack Nicklaus, jockey Willie Shoemaker and American footballer O.J. Simpson. Of the other seven sets, three have gone to Mr Weisman’s children, two were given to the University of Maryland and to UCLA, one was split up among the athletes and one was split among the associations pertaining to each sport.

The London exhibition also includes nine individual athlete paintings Warhol made as “extras”. These include O.J. Simpson at $2.5m and a pair of Jack Nicklaus at $6m.

“I knew that Andy always did extras and after his death I had quite an amusing discussion with the Warhol Foundation, because it turned out that he had done quite a few extras [of the “Athletes” series] which are in the estate,” says Mr Weisman. “But I had a contract saying that I was the owner of all the “Athletes”. In the end we settled, they gave me all of the “Athletes” paintings they had and I donated half of them back to the foundation on the understanding that they were not to be sold on the open market without my permission.”

However, other “Athletes” have been sold at auction, for example a four-part Chris Evert, 1978, which sold at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, New York, in 2001 for $38,000 (est $28,000-$32,000).

According to James Robinson, creative director at Martin Summers Fine Art: “All I can say with certainty is that this is the first time a complete set has ever been for sale. It is also probably the largest volume of these pictures ever to have appeared in one show (22 in total). As far as the “Athletes” Series on the open market is concerned, they are few and far between and, as far as I’m aware, those that have appeared at auction, haven’t come from Richard. So that leaves the institutions that he gave sets to and the athletes themselves.”

According to Mr Weisman, the decision to sell through a dealer, rather than at auction, was taken, because: “Martin is an old friend and I had always meant to do something with him.” Why is he selling now? “Warhol happens to be very much in demand at the moment,” he says.