At Sotheby’s contemporary-art auction in London last June, prices were high and house records were broken. Gerhard Richter set an auction record for his color charts when 180 Colors sold for $2.9 million. But the highlight of the evening was Lot 17, a pink acrylic-and-silk-screen print called Little Electric Chair by Andy Warhol. Sotheby’s main saleroom on New Bond Street was standing-room-only that evening. When the bidding for Little Electric Chair began, it was heavy and furious, but when the bids climbed above the $1.5 million mark, the room fell silent. The three remaining bidders—none present and all anonymous—relayed their bids via representatives on cell phones. The sale catalogue lists the estimate for Little Electric Chair at $430,000 to $575,000. When Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, brought down the gavel, the room broke into applause. Little Electric Chair had sold for $2.3 million.
|Design for the Andy Warhol first-class stamp.|
The pink Little Electric Chair—an iconic image from Warhol’s “Disaster” series, which also includes car crashes and race riots—is considered one of the higher-quality prints in the series, and the subject matter—capital punishment—is timely. Still, $2.3 million, four times the high estimate, was unheard of for a small (22-by-28-inch), early Warhol print.
Observers were stunned by the sale. “Everyone knew it would sell well,” says Matthew Carey-Williams, a vice president of contemporary art at Sotheby’s London (who has since transferred to New York). “No one thought it would do as well as it did.” Stellan Holm, a New York dealer, who last spring held the biggest Electric Chair show in 30 years—15 of the original 40 prints, made in 1964—was impressed; he was on hand to bid on Lot 17.
Members of Warhol’s former inner circle were surprised as well. The dealer Ivan Karp, as director of the Leo Castelli Gallery, represented Warhol and introduced him to many art insiders when he was coming up in the early 1960s. “In the old days, we couldn’t sell Electric Chairs at Castelli. They were considered disreputable,” says Karp, who is now director of the OK Harris Gallery in New York. In 1964 he sold one Little Electric Chair for $1,800. When Warhol first showed them as a group at a Toronto gallery in 1965, few people showed up at the opening, and there was no press coverage.
At Sotheby’s contemporary-art sale in New York in November, a yellow Little Electric Chair fetched $2.3 million, matching the record set in June. At Christie’s, a 1964 silk-screen portrait of Holly Solomon sold for $2.1 million. Such prices prove that Warhol, 15 years after his death in 1987, has become the hottest commodity on the contemporary-art market.
Warhol exhibitions are touring the globe. A retrospective of 82 works, co-organized last year by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the U.S. Department of State, is appearing in Eastern Europe, making Warhol the first contemporary American artist ever shown in such countries as Kazakhstan and Latvia. Last year the Warhol Museum organized 39 exhibitions and loans—as many shows as in the three previous years together. What’s more, Warhol’s huge catalogue of films is being restored, and many are being screened for a new generation from Pittsburgh to London.
In September Zurich dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who was Warhol’s close friend and has been showing his art since 1965, completed an exhibition of his 8-by-10-inch black-and-white photographs, a large but little-known body of work. In New York last fall, the Susan Sheehan Gallery presented a show of Warhol’s prints, drawings, and sculptures from his famous “Shoe” series of the 1950s.
In October the New National Gallery in Berlin launched a huge Andy Warhol retrospective, curated by the Berlin-based dealer Heiner Bastian. The show, which will travel to the Tate Modern in London this spring, includes not only early and late drawings but many of Warhol’s most recognizable paintings and prints, as well as a retrospective of his films.
Also in the spring, Phaidon Press will publish the first of six volumes of the Andy Warhol catalogue raisonné. The first two tomes will be edited by Georg Frei, a Zurich-based dealer, and Neil Printz, a member of the board of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, who writes frequently about the artist. The Warhol Museum will oversee the remaining four volumes. The project has been in development since Warhol authorized the late Swiss art dealer Thomas Ammann to begin work on it in 1977.
Some observers believe that Warhol’s reputation has profited from an increased interest in the period in which he flourished. “A bigger percentage of the collecting world is now interested in postwar art,” Robert Mnuchin, of C&M Arts, says. “Warhol is at the center of that.” Thomas Sokolowski, director of the Warhol Museum, says that he hasn’t seen this much interest in Warhol since the artist’s death.
Collectors are paying more for Warhol’s work than ever. The art market had just peaked when Warhol died, and no one imagined that his work would attract more attention than it did then. But it has. “Warhol’s prices have risen drastically,” says dealer Susan Sheehan, “much more so than for any other artist.” Just three years ago, Sheehan says, she sold “Shoe” drawings from the 1950s for $5,000 to $12,000. Today they would fetch $75,000 to $125,000. Ivan Karp agrees. “Warhol’s genuinely astounding prices seem grotesque,” he says. “They’re tainted with unreality.”
In a recent article for Artnet.com, Richard Polsky, a private San Francisco—based dealer who specializes in post-1960 art, wrote that the $17.3 million Sotheby’s sale in 1998 of Orange Marilyn was “the main event of the 1990s.” It was, he wrote, one of the events that helped jump-start the current Warhol renaissance. The price shattered the 1989 auction record of $4 million, which belonged to Shot Red Marilyn.
“With Warhol, it’s going to be like Picasso,” predicts Jeffrey Deitch of Deitch Projects in New York. “There’s so much you can still do with Warhol, so many aspects—as a painter and as a performance artist.”
And as a photographer. In the last two decades of his life, Warhol did many celebrity portrait series with his Polaroid camera. In his classic in-your-face style, he shot everyone from Muhammad Ali and Truman Capote to Jane Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Today these photos, which measure 4 1/4 by 3 3/4 inches, have become collector’s items, although many have begun to deteriorate. Eyestorm.com sold some for as much as $9,000 apiece. A Polaroid portrait of Hopper went for $3,500 at Sotheby’s New York in November.
The Warhol boom is also manifesting itself outside the realm of art. The design for a new first-class postage stamp featuring a 1964 self-portrait by the artist, from a photo-booth snapshot now in the collection of the Warhol Museum, was unveiled at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in November and will go on sale next summer. The stamp’s selvage carries the Warhol quotation: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There is nothing behind it.”
The exploitation of Warhol’s images is becoming big business. Martin Cribbs, who is in charge of licensing for the Warhol Foundation, says that “the number of requests for Warhol licenses has definitely increased.” In the last few years, he says, the foundation has earned $800,000 in licensing fees and is projecting earnings ten times that amount from deals that have
just been signed.
Much of the licensing revenue will come from a partnership announced in October between the foundation and the Beanstalk Group, which promotes such brands as Coke, AT&T, and Harley-Davidson. Beanstalk was named the exclusive licensing agent for the Warhol Foundation in North America and Europe and will market products bearing Warhol’s images, including dishes, bedding, and wallpaper, which will hit stores this month. Other recent deals have led to advertisements for British Airways and Mercedes-Benz, among other big corporations that have only just begun to take advantage of the Warhol brand. These new licenses extend the product line far beyond the generic museum-shop collectibles such as refrigerator magnets, calendars, and stationery that the foundation had so far approved.
Warhol’s Montauk estate, which he bought for $220,000 in 1972 with his friend and collaborator Paul Morrissey, was put on the market last summer. The asking price for the 5.6-acre oceanfront property has held fast at $50 million. In October Sotheby’s auctioned off property and artwork from the estate of Frederick W. Hughes, who was Warhol’s business manager for 25 years as well as the executor of his estate. The auction raised $3.3 million, beating estimates. And in June the Pompidou Center in Paris wrapped up a show titled “The Pop Years,” which featured the actual tinfoil that once lined the Factory, Warhol’s Manhattan studio.
Academics are seizing on the current Warhol mania. The November issue of the journal October, published by MIT Press, was devoted to critical and biographical essays on the artist and his work. In September Warhol became the second visual artist to be the subject of a Penguin lives Series book, written by the poet and English professor Wayne Koestenbaum. The only other visual artist in the series is Leonardo da Vinci.
When Warhol embarked on his career in the 1950s, he wasn’t immediately taken seriously as an artist. Leo Castelli originally refused to show his work, brushing him off as immature and unoriginal. He became a sensation in 1964, when his Brillo boxes were shown at the Stable Gallery. But by the time he died, newer, younger artists, including the Neo-Expressionists, had eclipsed the aging former superstar. Today, however, dealers are interested in the early and late works, as well as the midcareer, iconic images, such as the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Mao Zedong and the signature paintings of dollar signs and Campbell’s soup cans.
In 1958 the Museum of Modern Art declined the donation of a “Shoe” drawing; Warhol had yet to attain the notoriety of, say, Jackson Pollock or Robert Rauschenberg. But today the pre-Pop works—the drawings of cats, fairies, and gold shoes, for example—are among the most difficult-to-find items.
“We can’t find the early material anymore,” says Susan Sheehan. William S. Lieberman, chairman of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that of the 14 Warhol paintings and 8 drawings owned by the museum, 4 of the most recent acquisitions were early drawings.
“Because beginnings are very important,” says Mnuchin, “Warhol’s early work is very important.”
“Before Warhol died,” says Andrew Fabricant, director of the Richard Gray Gallery in New York, “people didn’t pay attention to his early work. Now that Warhol’s early work has changed hands a few times, many pieces have increased in value.” It was Fabricant who bought the 1964 silk-screen portrait of Holly Solomon at Christie’s New York in November.
Late works—the “Rorschach” and “Camouflage” paintings, for example—are also much sought after. “His late work was seen as flippant and commercial,” says Fabricant. “Not anymore.”
“Warhol was the most undervalued of the Pop artists,” says Vincent Fremont, who once worked for the artist. He is now the exclusive dealer for paintings, drawings, and sculpture for the Warhol Foundation. This spring the Gagosian Gallery in New York will mount a show, curated with the foundation, of paintings Warhol did in the 1980s.
Warhol’s influence on younger artists is greater than it was ten years ago. “Warhol was not as much an inspiration as a liberator,” says Ivan Karp. “He allowed for a new creativity.” He experimented with media, new printmaking techniques and Polaroids, for example, as well as with subject matter: advertisements, newspaper headlines, movie stars.
Sokolowski says that during this summer’s Venice Biennale, “it was Warhol, Warhol, Warhol, everywhere you looked.” He points to the hyperreal sculpture of Ron Mueck and to video artist Bill Viola, whose time-lag technique echoes Warhol’s film style. Says Sokolowski, “Much of the thinking and production of today’s artists is very Warholian.”
“For the past five years,” says Mnuchin, “there has been a broader recognition that Warhol is an important artist.” Fabricant goes farther: “It’s clear now that Warhol was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.” For the first time since his death, people are looking at his work in its totality.
“There has been a reevaluation of how good Warhol’s [more obscure] art is,” says Stellan Holm. That people are buying lesser-known works is due in part to the fact that Warhol’s prices have reached record highs. According to Fremont, it would have been impossible ten years ago to do a show in the United States of Warhol’s drawings, because “there just wasn’t enough interest.”
Warhol was prolific; it was said that he wanted to make more art than Picasso. (“I want to be a machine,” he famously remarked.) To suppress fakes, there is an Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, which considers the legitimacy of artworks attributed to him. The six-member board is a private corporation, made up of curators, art historians, and former Warhol associates, that was created with the Warhol Foundation. Among its members are president David Whitney and secretary Neil Printz. It meets three times a year to examine artworks submitted by Warhol owners. It does not issue appraisals. Board members are unwilling to speak about its activities, but, according to a source, 10 to 20 percent of the works submitted to the board’s rigorous monthlong test are considered questionable. Some observers feel that because Warhol often enlisted colleagues, lovers, and collaborators to help him make art, many legitimate pieces made in the serial manner have not been certified as authentic. Claudia Defendi, the board’s assistant secretary, refuses to disclose details about how the board operates, citing concerns about client privacy.
Because Warhol was so prolific, there is a perception that a lot of high-quality work is still available, says Polsky. “This is not true.” Gallery owners, dealers, and auction houses agree that the supply is beginning to dry up. “The Warhol market continues to get stronger,” says Leslie Prouty, Sotheby’s deputy director of contemporary art. “But they are selling so well because they are hard to find these days.” Mnuchin, who presented a show last year of Warhol’s portraits of women, says, “There is a small percentage of what we consider quality work. When supply gets taken out of the market, prices go up.”
Before he died, Warhol arranged for the creation of the Warhol Foundation, whose primary business is grant giving. (It earns revenue from licensing, the sale of art, and endowment income.) The foundation’s biggest project was the Warhol Museum, which was founded with a $2 million grant in 1990. In October Joel Wachs, a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles city council, took over as the new head of the Warhol Foundation. Wachs, a member of the foundation’s board for six years, replaced Archibald L. Gillies, who served as its first president.
In 1992 the foundation found itself in a byzantine court battle brought on by Edward W. Hayes, who had been the attorney both for Warhol’s estate and for the foun
dation, the e
tate’s main beneficiary. The dispute involved the value of Warhol’s art. Hayes, claiming that he was owed 2 percent of the value of the Warhol estate based on a contract he had signed with executor Frederick Hughes, argued that Warhol’s body of work was worth more than $700 million. Christie’s, which had been retained by the foundation to appraise Warhol’s estate, put the sum at under $100 million. After seven years of countersuits, Hayes was forced to file for bankruptcy and repay the foundation some of what it had already paid him.
The foundation has been selling Warhol’s work for 14 years. “It’s getting harder to do exhibitions for the foundation,” concedes Vincent Fremont. “There’s less material.” This is in part because after Warhol died, museums were given the first pick at around 50 percent of book value. The Warhol Museum owns more than 4,000 objects, the largest collection of the artist’s work in the world.
“People didn’t see Warhol as a visionary,” says Fremont, from his office on Union Square, just a block from where Warhol built his second Factory. “Now they do.” Warhol was mute when it came to discussing his art, Sokolowski explains. When he did speak, he was often contradictory.
“People always cherished their Andy,” he says, whichever version of Andy they chose to know.
Tyler Maroney is a Brooklyn-based writer. He is a former Fulbright Scholar.