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Art Appreciation

by Amanda Hamm Hengel

Moorestown’s Gregory McCoy turned his passion for collecting pieces from the likes of Andy Warhol into a newfound career.

Collecting, whether for pleasure or profit, is a popular pursuit. For Moorestown’s Gregory McCoy, it is a pastime he’s enjoyed since childhood. Beginning with the heart-shaped rocks he gathered for his mother, McCoy made it a habit even as a young boy to pull together items that interested him, from football cards to coins, even automobile parts stickers.

As we’re wont to do, McCoy—a 20-year veteran of the advertising industry who now works at the art appreciation firm Violette de Mazia Foundation and attends classes at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia—has seen his interests change over the years. And while he is still collecting, his compilation now has a bit more significance. In fact, since 1991, he has been collecting Andy Warhol pieces.

South Jersey Magazine spoke with McCoy about his pastime—which landed him a meeting with Andy Warhol’s nephew, James Warhola, as well as an appearance on the Keno Brother’s Buried Treasure television show—and how he developed his interest in art and, ultimately, the popular pop-art artist.

His introduction to art…
My grandmother gave me a stack of stamps she saved, which introduced me to art in general, and in many ways I perceive of them now as small prints. Later, I was able to visit different museums in the area, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and that was the first time I came face-to-face with art. My first personal experience with art was at Mary Robert’s [Elementary] School in Moorestown. I made a papier mâché elephant and when I was done with the project, it was displayed on a card table in the hallway. I was probably 7 or 8 and I received some recognition for it and I remember seeing the elephant on the table and just realizing that it was a special moment in my life. … That really fueled me and gave me the self confidence to go ahead and ultimately pursue a career in art both commercially and now on the fine arts side.

Beginning his art collection…
Anytime I had any money, I would purchase art with it. When other people may have purchased a house, I bought art. As a little boy I had a 50-cent allowance and I would make the most of what I had. I remember years ago soda was 11 cents and if I had eight cents left from my allowance, I would walk the streets and find empty bottles to get three cents from the bottles so I could buy a Coke or orange soda or root beer. I came from a middle-class family. My father was a steel worker and mother was an esthetician. I had passion for it, in reference to collecting, but I really wasn’t in the position to buy at the auction houses, so I had to make the most of what I had. I did my best to get to know the people that knew Andy himself and buy as close to the source myself. Warhol had passed away by the time I started collecting.

Why Andy Warhol?
I bought Andy Warhol’s work because I loved it. When I first started buying it, there was a great deal available. As time goes by there is less and less. That’s the reason for the pieces’ $80 to $100 million price tags.

The Warhol pieces he owns…
I own three original small signed paintings: a “Dollar Sign,” a “Hamburger” on the back of which Warhol wrote “Happy Hamburger” and “Be a Somebody with a Body.” I also own about 20 or so works on paper and prints including celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, plus examples of Andy Warhol’s Cow and Mao wallpaper. I also have about a dozen or so pieces of signed ephemera including an actual signed Campbell’s soup can, a Brillo box, a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box and a signed dinner roll—which, by the way, is now over 40 years old.

Exhibiting his collection…
I love having the opportunity to exhibit them and to share them and to tell people the stories behind them. Some people are most interested in the art itself so I share the different things I’ve learned. For example, in print he worked with matte ink—there was a combination of inks that he used. Other people are more interested in the financial side, like what’s happened with the art market. In many ways art has become a non-traditional asset much like gold.

The pieces he’s sold…
As for sales, the most significant ones are the “Double Mona Lisa” and the “Car Crash.” I have also sold a variety of prints and signed pieces of ephemera at auction. For example, I sold an Elizabeth Taylor signed poster in the same sale in which Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding dress was sold and a Mick Jagger-signed poster when the band was recently touring. I try to time my sales to coincide with current events. Another example is when I sold the “Double Mona Lisa” piece during the same week as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released.

How art has changed…
People laugh when I say when I started collecting, art was affordable. Many of the things I bought have gone up 50 to 100 times in value. At the time I started collecting, because I couldn’t afford the edition pieces, I bought what were considered studio scraps. Like the black and white soup cans [piece I have]—at the time, it was a piece of paper ripped in half. I have the left-hand side. I know the Warhol Museum has a similar piece. I don’t know for a fact that it’s the opposite side because I’ve never been able to marry the two, but at the time, that was what I was able to purchase.

Lessons he’s learned…
One thing I’ve always kept in mind is trying to become a favored client and being one of the first people to be offered something. When you ask about [Warhol’s] “Dollar Sign” collection, people know about me. Dealers that have a “Dollar Sign” will call me and ask me if I want it. A “Dollar Sign” painting can sell for $6 to $8 million for a large. A small one is worth somewhere between a half-million and three-quarters of a million. The small ones are 10 by 8 inches. Large canvases are 90 by 60 inches. They’re the ones that are bought by mega collectors. That’s who’s able to afford something like that.

Taking classes at the Barnes Foundation…
I’ve had a passion for art my entire life. Five or six years ago, I made the conscious decision to do my best to work in the fine arts as opposed to commercial art. I enjoyed working in advertising and I think the two are in many ways related. I would talk about the trinity in art but what drew me to advertising is that you could work with three distinct parties—art directors, creative directors and the business people—and all three were dependent upon one another for success. If your art director wasn’t good—every group of people has to be successful. In many ways museum work is the same—there are artists, the art museum and staff/foundations and you have the collector. You really have to work as a group and all three parties are dependent upon one another.

The thrill of it all…
When it comes to my art collecting, it’s either I find something or it finds me. Some pieces I hunt down, and there are other things that fall in your lap. I understand you have to be in it to find it but some-times things just come along. … Sometimes I feel that they’re sent to me. It’s a great experience.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 5 (August, 2015).
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