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 or so weeks since Costco, a warehouse club store, began listing “Fine Art” in the Home & Décor section of its Web site, it has sold 8 of the 10 works it initially listed, including 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 $1,699.99, said Greg Moors, the San Francisco dealer supplying the art to Costco.
Mr. Moors said he has about five more works that he expects to list on the Web site over the weekend, but added that it takes time to find and frame original art.
Ginnie M. Roeglin, senior vice president for e-commerce and publishing at Costco, said, “We just started this program and are just testing a few things.” She declined to comment further on the decision to sell art again.
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. 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. Sears guaranteed every purchase just as it would with a refrigerator or lawn mower.
Costco also guarantees “satisfaction on every product we sell, with a full refund” within 90 days of purchase. Mr. Moors’s phone number is listed under “product details” on the Web site 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 ranged in price from $37,00 to $146,000 and did not come from Mr. 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 Web site can find lithographs for three and four figures, less than many of the televisions Costco regularly sells.
The lithographs are primarily unsigned. As Mr. 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 Dalí.” Mr. Moors was referring to the proliferation of fake Dalí 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 Ms. Robinson and Johnny Botts, another California artist, who says on his Web site that he uses “simple shapes, hard edges and happy colors” to make his whimsical robots.
Mr. Moors came across Ms. Robinson’s work at a boutique and studio space she shares with a jewelry designer on Mission Street near the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco. Mr. Moors chose colorful pieces that combined fabric and paint for the Costco collection, Ms. Robinson said. Her art is being offered on consignment, and the contract she signed with Mr. Moors does not prevent her from selling her artwork anywhere else, including her own Web site.
Asked what her initial reaction had been to to Mr. Moors’s proposal to sell her art at Costco, Ms. 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.”
Nonetheless, 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,” Ms. Robinson said, adding, “I know their customers are really important to them, and they have a really loyal following.”
As Mr. 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.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 22, 2012
A picture caption on Oct. 6 with an article about Costco’s decision to start selling fine art again omitted an artist who collaborated on the work shown, “Sail Away.” In addition to Johnny Botts, the artist known as Misho contributed to the piece.