May Brings Warhol Mania
Warhol Mania has been everywhere this spring with a seemingly infinite array of opportunities for fans – and investors – of contemporary art to delve deeper into the life and work of America’s most famous artist.
A new play exploring Warhol’s relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat opened in February in London with plans to head to Broadway in the near future. Netflix’s new, six-part docu-series, ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’ has become must-watch viewing for even those who possess only a passive interest in the pop master’s art. And the Brooklyn Museum’s recent Warhol exhibition, ‘Andy Warhol: Revelation’ has been the subject of rave reviews.
Now, as summer rears its head and the art world barrels towards the all-important May auction sales in New York, the resurgent attention surrounding Warhol can be seen directly in the art market itself with some of the artist’s most important works set to achieve record prices when they come up for sale at Christie’s and Sotheby’s over the next few weeks.
The Warhol market is often considered a barometer for the broader art market at large, and by exploring the upcoming works for sale in depth, we’re ultimately able to gain a better understanding of where the art market as a whole is likely to head next.
Shot Sage Blue Marilyn at Christie’s
‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ will be the first of the major Warhol works offered for sale this auction season as a highlight of Christie’s Marquee Week of sales on May 9th. With an on-request estimate of $200 million – the highest asking price for any artwork ever offered at auction – the 40 by 40-inch canvas is poised to make history, not only as the most expensive Warhol to ever be sold (the current record for which belongs to the 1963 work ‘Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)’ which sold for $105 million at Sotheby’s in 2013) but also as one of the most expensive works of art by any artist to ever be sold.
One of five portraits of Marilyn Monroe created by Warhol in 1964, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ is arguably one of the artist’s most iconic works as it represents the ultimate depiction of his ultimate muse. In fact, the Christie’s catalogue for the sale even goes as far as calling it the 20th Century’s version of Mona Lisa.
The painting hails from the collection of Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann and his sister Doris, who passed away in 2021. The duo founded Thomas Ammann Fine Art in 1977 in Zurich, Switzerland, and worked tirelessly over the decades to raise the profile of Impressionists, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary artists. Over time, their gallery became one of the most impactful art spaces in Europe, revered by many of the world’s top collectors, and known for showing some of the best blue-chip quality art around.
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While the canvases were eventually restored and the sage blue edition being sold at Christie’s went undamaged, the entire incident mirrored Warhol’s creative obsession of the darker side of celebrity and death, giving the five works an aura of mystique that has only grown over the years to the point where they’ve now achieved a sort of legendary status in art history.
Even decades later, the Marilyn series still maintains a gripping allure for the world’s top collectors. During the 1998 recession, ‘Orange Marilyn’ ignited a heated bidding war at Sotheby’s between casino magnate Steve Wynn and the late publishing powerhouse S.I. Newhouse, before it eventually sold to Newhouse for $17.3 million against a pre-sale estimate of $4 million to $6 million. Nine years later, the legendary Chicago-based collector, Stefan Edlis, sold ‘Turquoise Marilyn’ for $80 million to Steve Cohen, the current owner of the New York Mets (and purported inspiration for the character of Bobby Axelrod on the hit Showtime series ‘Billions’). And then following Newhouse’s passing in 2017, ‘Orange Marilyn’ was sold again to billionaire hedge fund manager, Ken Griffin, in a private transaction for a rumored $240 million.
Now, with an asking price of $200 million, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ will undoubtedly break even more records. There’s chatter among art market experts that it might even surpass Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi,’ which sold for $450 million in 2017 to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the most expensive artwork of all time.
Self Portrait at Sotheby’s
Meanwhile, over at Sotheby’s, Warhol’s ‘Self Portrait’ will go under the hammer the following week in a dedicated sale held on May 16th.
Painted months before his death in 1986 and originating from the artist’s final body of work titled the ‘Fright Wig’ series, the painting is being sold with an estimate of $15 million to $20 million. Described in the auction catalogue as a “quintessential Warhol” since it wrestles with the artist’s struggle between his private inner-self and his exigent desire for public attention, the 80 by 80.5 inch self-portrait depicts Warhol’s head pushed up against the picture plane, overlaid with a blue, yellow, and purple camouflage pattern.
The larger-than-life painting is being sold from the second half of the famed Macklowe collection, the first half of which achieved a stunning $676.1 million at a single-owner sale at Sotheby’s this past November. The artworks featured in the two-part sale feature some of the very top names in 20th and 21st century art and reflect the personal taste of real estate tycoon Harry Mackowe and his ex-wife, Linda.
Why Warhol is Considered a Bellwether
While the artist himself may have produced some of the most cynical, visual commentaries on consumer and celebrity culture, Warhol is often considered by industry experts to be a bellwether of the post-war and contemporary art market. Following sales of Warhol’s artworks taking off in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, in a 2009 article, the Economist attributed this to the “size, range, and emblematic transactions” prevalent in the artist’s market; as well as Warhol’s reputation as a trendsetter.
In addition to the sheer volume of works Warhol made during his lifetime – approximately 10,000, representing an unusually high output for almost any artist other than Picasso and thereby providing a distinctly robust data set from which we’re able to draw conclusions – Warhol’s body of work embraces diversity across mediums and price points.
The Pittsburgh-born artist dabbled in painting, sculpture, film, prints, photography, drawing, collage and more. But more fascinatingly, these different mediums encouraged diverse prices. For example, a Warhol silkscreen painting could hammer at approximately $105 million but a Warhol polaroid photograph could be purchased for $10,000. Inadvertently, this brought in buyers, from across the socioeconomic strata, producing varying markets dedicated to Warhol’s works.
There is also the matter of diversity in subject matter. His artistic oeuvre includes the famous Campbell’s soup cans, portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Mao Zedong, as well as flowers, car crashes, race riots, and electric chairs; drawing enthusiasts from multiple spheres and expanding the pool of potential buyers for his work even further.
What It Means for the Market Going Forward
Despite the current predominance of young contemporary artists at auction, this May auction season is notable for its markedly deep supply of major works by deceased 20th Century masters. Just in terms of Warhol alone, in addition to ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ and ‘Self Portrait,’ Christie’s and Sotheby’s are also offering the 1963 silkscreen ‘Elvis,’ estimated to sell for between $15 million and $25 million at Sotheby’s, and the macabre 1976 work ‘Skull,’ and the 1964 green-hued ‘Flowers’ (also from the collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann) which Christie’s is selling for $25 million to $35 million and $15 million to $20 million respectively.
Altogether, the breadth of Warhol material coming up for sale at the same time is not only a bullish indicator for the artist’s market in particular (after all, collectors wouldn’t consign their works for sale if they didn’t think they’d achieve strong results) but also signifies continued upward momentum for the wider art market as a whole.
Even 35 years after his death, amid the backdrop of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the digital disruption that’s upended the art market, it’s clear that Warhol continues to hold asymmetrical sway at the top echelons of the art market.
Even though he likely never actually said it, the misattributed Warhol maxim that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” has never been more true in today’s day and age. Ironically though, for Warhol, at least, those 15 minutes don’t appear to be ending any time soon.
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