Along with the bales of toilet paper and drums of tomato sauce that Costco customers load into their online shopping carts, they can now add an original Warhol or Matisse, a result of this giant discount retailer’s recent decision to re-enter the fine-art market.
Quietly and cautiously, like someone newly divorced returning to dating, Costco has begun selling fine art again after quitting the business six years ago when questions were raised about the authenticity of two Picasso drawings it had sold online.
In the two weeks since Costco, a warehouse club store, began listing “Fine Art” in the Home & Decor section of its website, it has sold five works: two framed lithographs by Henri Matisse, one for $1,000, and the other for $800; a framed lithograph by Georges Braque for $1,400; a framed screen print by Andy Warhol for $1,450; and a framed textile-and-paint collage by Heather Robinson for $1,699, said Greg Moors, the San Francisco dealer supplying the art to Costco.
As of Thursday, five other pieces were listed on the site, the most expensive a framed lithograph by Georges Rouault for $899.99.
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“We just started this program and are just testing a few things,” said Ginnie M. Roeglin, senior vice president for e-commerce and publishing at Costco.
She declined to comment further on the decision to sell art again.
Moors said in an interview that he was driven by his vision of art for everybody, and he dismissed any incongruity in the notion of a discount warehouse club selling fine art. For many gallery owners and Internet art sellers, “the deal is more important than the customer,” Moors said, but with a brand-name store like Costco, “the customer is more important than the deal.”
Galleries will sometimes take sizable markups on works of art they purchase for resale, according to dealers. By contrast, Moors said, Costco is charging a maximum of 14 percent over what they pay him, the same markup it applies to all its merchandise.
Costco is certainly not the first large chain to offer fine art. Between 1962 and 1971, Sears sold more than 50,000 works by artists like Picasso, Rembrandt, Chagall and Whistler through its catalog and in its stores as part of the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art. Customers at Sears could buy a work on layaway for as little as $5 down and $5 a month.
Costco also guarantees “satisfaction on every product we sell, with a full refund” within 90 days of purchase. Moors’ phone number is listed under “product details” on the website so that potential buyers can ask him questions.
Costco stopped selling fine art in 2006 after Picasso’s daughter Maya Widmaier-Picasso questioned the authenticity of a few drawings attributed to her father that the store was selling. Those works were as much as $146,000 and did not come from Moors, who started supplying museum-quality art to Costco in 2003. This time, the retailer is offering lower-priced items, he said.
Shoppers who now click on the company’s website can find lithographs for three and four figures, less than many of the televisions Costco regularly sells.
The lithographs are primarily unsigned. As Moors explained, unsigned works eliminate the potential problem of forged signatures.
He said he was taking other steps to ensure the art’s authenticity.
“Certain artists are known to have had problems,” he said. “For instance, although I like him as an artist, I won’t go near Dali.”
Moors was referring to the proliferation of fake Dali prints on the market.
Ultimately, the best way to avoid suspicion, he said, is to work with living artists. At the moment he plans to offer art by Robinson and Johnny Botts, another California artist, who says on his website that he uses “simple shapes, hard edges and happy colors” to make his whimsical robots.
Moors came across Robinson’s work at a boutique and studio space she shares with a jewelry designer in San Francisco. Moors chose colorful pieces that combined fabric and paint for the Costco collection, Robinson said. Her art is being offered on consignment, and the contract she signed with Moors does not prevent her from selling her artwork anywhere else, including her own website.
Asked what her initial reaction had been to Moors’ proposal to sell her art at Costco, Robinson searched for the right phrase.
“I was a little surprised,” she started.
“My work is very. …” she continued.
“It’s not necessarily. …
“When you think of Costco. …”
“How should I put it?” she asked, before settling on the idea that selling her work at Costco “would not have occurred to me.”
Robinson says she is thrilled to have access to Costco’s 60 million members.
“It’s a really great way to get exposure for my work in a way I wouldn’t be able to get on my own,” Robinson said, adding, “I know their customers are really important to them, and they have a really loyal following.”
As Moors said: “She is starting off with an audience of 60 million people. You can social-network for the next 30 years and never get that audience.”