It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the anonymous buyers who acquired Andy Warhol’s Marilyn (1962) a dozen years ago and Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (1962) 24 years ago, both of which are up at auction this evening at Christie’s sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art, were motivated by the prospect of seeing returns on their investments. Christie’s pre-sale estimates for the two works—$4,000,000-6,000,000 and $30,000,000–50,000,000, respectively—suggest that the sellers should expect healthy returns; the original purchase prices were $332,500 for the former and $264,000 for the latter.
In the 15 years leading up to the late 1990s, only a handful of Warhol’s works had sold at auction for more than $1,000,000. With few exceptions, like Marilyn Monroe (twenty times) (1962), which sold for $3,960,000 in 1988 or the blockbuster sale of Orange Marilyn (1964) that went for over $17 million in 1998, it was not until the Contemporary art market boom of 2005–2008 that prices for the artist’s works truly took off. Today, Andy Warhol is the third most valuable artist in terms of the total market value of works sold at auction, just behind Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. Of the 5,000 most valuable works of art ever sold at auction, 208 were made by Warhol.
Not only did prices take off after 2005, they also began to diverge depending, in part, on the subject of Warhol’s work. Prior to 2000, the top prices for Warhol occupied a very narrow band of approximately $1.8 million to $3.9 million, again, with the glaring exception of Orange Marilyn. These works included Warhol’s Marilyn, Elvis, Coca-cola, and Campbell series, among others. After 2005, however, certain subjects, particularly self portraits, and works of particular rarity or interesting provenance began to achieve significantly higher valuations.
Rarity and provenance were undoubtedly the factors that led to the high estimate for Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener. According to Christie’s catalogue note, the work comes “from the renowned collection of Barney A. Ebsworth.” The note goes on, “There are only ten large scale Campbell cans and the majority are in museum collections including the Menli Collection, Houston, the Kunsthaus, Zurich, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen Duesseldorf and two in The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.”
Along with prices, return on investment is another indicator that has seen tremendous growth since 2005. The average return on Warhol repeat sales to date is 23.86%, a phenomenal number for a market where negative and single-digit returns are far more common. In fact, of the 26 sales of Warhol’s works coming to auction more than once, which have been registered by Skate’s since 1985, only one – Shot Red Marilyn (1964), which was sold in 1994 after a five-year holding period – achieved a negative return. Most likely this was a case of a seller who had paid a premium in the still-hot market of 1989 and was forced to sell in a weaker 1994 market.
Though Warhol’s auction performance suffered in the wake of the global financial crisis, by and large he has remained the darling of the Contemporary segment, which according to some estimates declined by more than 60% from their pre-crisis peak. As the art world wraps up the second week of its traditionally busy November auction sales, market analysts will look for signs of further recovery in Contemporary art, especially in light of last week’s strong sales for Impressionist and Modern art.
Sotheby’s sale of Contemporary Art last night provides some indication as to how Marilyn and Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener will fare this evening at Christie’s. Though most attention was paid to the sale of Coca-Cola  [Large Coca-Cola] (1962) for more than $35 million—the evening’s most expensive lot—two repeat sales, The Last Supper (1986) and Coca-cola (1962), sold for $6,802,500 and $1,482,500, respectively. The investment returns achieved by the sellers were 23.59% and 8.60%, respectively.
Five of the six Warhols sold at Sotheby’s yesterday either fell within or slightly above the auction house’s pre-sale estimate range. The one exception was Coca-Cola  [Large Coca-Cola], which had an already staggeringly high estimate range of $20,000,000-25,000,000 and sold for $35,362,500.
But Warhol and his market have a tendency to surprise, especially when it comes to the iconic Marilyn works that were painted after the star’s suicide in 1962. In May 1998, just two months after Marilyn was purchased for $332,500, Orange Marilyn sold for $17,327,500—nearly three times its high estimate of $6,000,000.