EIGHT ELVISES is a 12-foot painting that has all the virtues of a great Andy Warhol: fame, repetition and the threat of death. The canvas is also awash with the artist’s favourite colour, silver, and dates from a vintage Warhol year, 1963. It did not leave the home of Annibale Berlingieri, a Roman collector, for 40 years, but in autumn 2008 it sold for over $100m in a deal brokered by Philippe Sacgalot, the French art consultant. That sale was a world record for Warhol and a benchmark that only four other artistsâPablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Gustav Klimtâhave ever achieved.
Warhol’s oeuvre is huge. It consists of about 10,000 artworks made between 1961, when the artist gave up graphic design, and 1987, when he died suddenly at the age of 58. Most of these are silk-screen paintings portraying anything from Campbell’s soup cans to Jackie Kennedy and Mao Zedong, drag queens and commissioning collectors. Warhol also created disaster paintings from newspaper clippings, as well as abstract works such as shadows and oxidations. The paintings come in series of various sizes. There are only 20 Most Wanted Men canvases, for example, but about 650 Flower paintings. Warhol also made sculpture and many experimental films, which contribute greatly to his legacy as an innovator.
The Warhol market is considered the bellwether of post-war and contemporary art for many reasons, including its size and range, its emblematic transactions and the artist’s reputation as a trendsetter. Since 2002 Warhol has consistently been one of the three most traded artists. In 2007, at the height of the boom, auction sales of his work added up to $428m, the highest turnover of any artist. In the past two years the figures have dropped steeply and the prolific Picasso has returned to the top spot (see chart 5), but nobody seems too worried. Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns some 800 Warhol works, notes that two years ago we were selling ten Warhols a month, now we’re selling two a month, but we’re selling them for the same price. Either we get our price or we don’t sell the painting. The market appears to agree that prices for the best Warhols are recession-proof. Earlier this month a 1962 work, 200 One Dollar Bills, sold for $43.8m, the second-highest price for a Warhol at auction.
Warhol really consists of two markets, explains Brett Gorvy, co-head of Christie’s contemporary-art department. âOne market chases ultra-rare, art-historically relevant paintings from the 1960s. The other is a perfect volume market where 24-inch Flowers and single Jackies trade like any other commodity.â Behind Warhol’s fine-art market lies an active trade in limited-edition prints and, beyond that, a range of consumer goods that are licensed to use Warhol images. The cover of Madonna’s new album of greatest hits features a close-up of the pop star as Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. âOne reason why the Warhol market is so vibrantâeven if it has receded in this economyâis that there is something incredibly cool about Andy,â says Larry Gagosian, a dealer who is active in the Warhol market. âHe feels like a living artist. He is incredibly present in our culture.â
Warhol’s importance as a symbol is immense. He is not just famous; he has been a dominant influence on many of the most successful artists today, including Jeff Koons (see article), Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. He redefined the role of the artist as a creative director more of an architect than a craftsman who is acutely aware of the media resonance of his art. In future Warhol will be much more important than Picasso, says Gerard Faggionato, a London dealer, because he is more relevant to the younger generation.
During Warhol’s lifetime and for a good while after his death, the art world could not decide whether the artist was superficial or deep, subversive or conservative, boring or provocative. The lack of consensus contributed to his current market dominance by keeping his ideas in the air.
Warhol’s tendency to make more work than his collectors could possibly buy flew in the face of art-world etiquette. But Bruno Bischofberger, a Swiss dealer, notes that Picasso and Mozart were incredibly prolific. If the production is good, it doesn’t matter. It damages the market but not the art. It’s irrelevant to the work itself. Vincent Fremont, an art adviser who worked for Warhol from 1969 until his death, says that Andy liked quantity. Ten was usually better than one.â Indeed, Warhol was such a shopaholic that when Sotheby’s auctioned the contents of his home it took ten days to sell the 10,000 objects.
Warhol’s death coincided with a boom in the art market, and his work did well at auctions in 1988 and 1989. However, with the bust in 1990 sales dropped dramatically, and by May 1993 the Warhol market was pronounced all but dead when 16 paintings came up for auction and only two found buyers. Yet in 1996 Warhol’s status was propelled upwards by a single sale that harked back to his first solo show. In 1962 Irving Blum, a Los Angeles dealer, had exhibited 32 hand-painted canvases depicting tins of soup, then acquired the entire series for $1,000, paying Warhol in ten monthly instalments. Blum held on to the paintings until 1996 when he sold 32 Campbell’s Soup Cansâ to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $15m. In addition to setting a new benchmark price, the sale signalled Warhol’s canonisation.
In an oeuvre so vast, what makes one Warhol more valuable than others? Rarity and aesthetic issues such as the quality of the screen, clarity of the figure, intensity of the colour and size of the picture are important, but the deciding factor is subject matter. And the subject most consistently in demand is Marilyn Monroe.
Warhol made his first Marilyn paintings in August 1962, shortly after the actress committed suicide. He started with a series of small solo Marilyns known as the flavours and graduated to larger, multiple ones. When a selection of the paintings was exhibited that year, they were pronounced âbeautiful, vulgar, heart-breaking evocations of the âmyths of our time. Two years later Warhol made five more solo Marilyns in a larger size, which are now among the most coveted in the Warhol oeuvre. They are exquisitely rendered and gained extra allure when an unstable member of Warhol’s entourage fired a gun at the forehead of âBlue Marilyn,â puncturing the Red Marilyn stacked behind it. The damage became the stuff of legend.
Those two paintings are now owned by the two men with the best Warhol collections in private hands. Peter Brant, a Connecticut newsprint magnate, bought the blue version in 1967 for $5,000. A Cadillac cost $3,500. It was a lot of money back then, he says. Philippe Niarchos, a Paris-based shipping heir, bought Red at Christie’s in 1994 for $3.6m, a bargain compared with the $4.1m which it sold for during the 1980s boom. The three other Marilyns in this 1964 series are owned by Samuel I. Newhouse, Doris Ammann and Steven Cohen (who bought his for $80m in 2007).
Many connoisseurs think that Warhol’s death-and-disaster paintings, which appropriated newspaper images of car crashes, race riots and electric chairs, are the most significant part of his oeuvre. Their harsh imagery counteracts the artist’s reputation as a star-struck commercial painter and distinguishes him from less ambitious Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. In the late 1960s and early 1970s they did not sell easily, but now the auction record for a Warhol, $71.7m, is held by Mr Niarchos’s Green Car Crash, which depicts a burning car from which one of the passengers has been ejected and freakishly pinned to a lamp-post.
In 1968 Warhol was shot in the chest and nearly died. For several years he produced very little art. When he returned to work, it was to paint one of the world’s most famous men, China’s Chairman Mao, with a vigour and momentum previously unseen, claims Neil Printz, co- author of the artist’s catalogue raison. The artist’s first series of Maos did not sell easily. In the early 1970s few collectors wanted an oversized communist in their living room. However, with the rise of Asian art-buying Maos have been commanding higher prices, such as the $17.4m paid at Christie’s for a big blue one by Joseph Lau, the Hong Kong collector. In early 2008 a Chinese collector offered $100m for a Giant Mao, but the owner turned it down. There are some 200 Maos in a range of sizes, but only four giants. According to James Mayor, the British dealer who represents the owner, that sum would now be âseriously consideredâ.
Warhol’s international appeal is explained partly by the popular roots and easy intelligibility of his visual style, but it also owes something to the efforts of Mr Bischofberger, the Zurich-based dealer who was the driving force behind the distribution of the artist’s work for many years. Mr Bischofberger’s knack for placing the work in collections across Europe makes the markets of other American artists look parochial. He was also instrumental in launching three of the best Warhol collections in private hands. The late Thomas Ammann worked for Mr Bischofberger before building up a stellar collection of Warhols for the Schmidheiny family’s Daros Foundation. Mr Bischofberger also introduced Warhol’s work to Mr Niarchos and Mr Brant, whom he had met as teenagers in St Moritz.
Mr Brant, one of the biggest Warhol collectors anywhere, started buying in 1967 and was a founding shareholder with Mr Bischofberger of Warhol’s magazine, Interview. In May 1970 Mr Brant consigned Soup Can with Peeling Label to Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet. The work sold for a record price of $60,000 to Mr Bischofberger.
When asked how many Warhols he owns today, Mr Brant replies: “I swear to you, I have no idea. It’s not about numbers but quality”. He has been trading Warhols for over 40 years, but says that âyou need new collectors for competitiveness and creative juices.â
Nowadays the two dealers who drive the Warhol market are Mr Gagosian and Mr Mugrabi. Mr Gagosian started showing Warhol in the 1980s. “Andy was very straightforward in business. We’d have informal conversations over a tuna sandwich,” he says. Mr Gagosian gave Warhol his last New York exhibition before his death and continues to present the artist’s works systematically in carefully curated shows with scholarly catalogues.
In spring 2008 Mr Gagosian spent more than $200m on an undisclosed number of Warhols (insiders suggest between 15 and 20) from the Sonnabend estate. He is said to have had the financial backing of Mr Cohen, the buyer of the $80m âMarilynâ, and a Russian oligarch rumoured to be Mikhail Fridman, owner of Alfa Bank. Mr Gagosian has since sold a few of the paintingsâa 1965 Campbell’s soup can at Art Basel in June and a car-crash painting to Richard Prince, an artist.
The biggest number of Warhols are traded by the Mugrabi family. âI don’t know if Warhol is important. All I know is that I love him, says Mr Mugrabi pare, Jose. During the downturn of the early 1990s he began buying up Warhols that he felt were undervalued, such as portraits of Jackie Kennedy, an important image in Warhol’s repertoire. Since then the Mugrabis have been constantly buying and selling and have accumulated some 800 works, including several masterpieces such as Marilyn Monroe (Twenty Times).
Mr Mugrabi and his two sons bid on Warhol at auction with such regularity that they are sometimes accused of manipulation. Art-market insiders, however, prefer the term support. As Sandy Heller, a New York-based art consultant, explains, “people with inventory put their money where their mouth is. It’s like dollar-averaging in equities. If you see a work going for less than your average cost and you truly believe in an artist, then you buy more”. As Stefan Edlis, a Chicago collector, puts it, “I don’t think you can manipulate such large markets, but you can have price leadership”.
Warhol-market insiders are still not sure where Eight Elvises, the $100m-plus picture, now hangs. But despite the secrecy at the very top, volume alone probably makes the Warhol market more transparent than that of any other artist, living or dead. The vertical reach of the Warhol brand is so vast that it makes the span of the most successfully diffused fashion house, from eau de cologne to haute couture, seem positively squat by comparison. That seems appropriate for an artist who merged high and low like no other.