At a recent dinner party in San Francisco, Martin Muller, proprietor of the gallery Modernism, was seen with his glamorous girlfriend -- who was sporting a Louis Vuitton handbag. However, this wasn't just any bag. This was the one designed by Takashi Murakami. Not long ago, Vuitton decided to dress up its conservative image by commissioning Murakami to design a new look for the firm's classic but drab "LV" logo bags. Murakami came through brilliantly. He created a new palette of bright colors that gave the bags a tasteful yet hip look. Louis Vuitton demonstrated equal brilliance by launching a marketing campaign that immediately led to a waiting list for the new Murakami bags.
As a result, the Murakami bag became the latest "must have" accessory among affluent women. The bags became so difficult to come by that enterprising crooks quickly came up with knock-off versions -- which currently can be found on street corners from New York to Venice, Italy (see the cover of the September issue of Artforum).
Meanwhile, when I asked Mr. Muller how he was able to get ahold of one of these bags, he just smiled slyly. When I asked, "How much did it set you back? $3,500?" He just rolled his eyes upward. Regardless of what he paid, the point was clear -- Takashi Murakami had become the hottest serious/commercial artist since Keith Haring.
And Murakami's reputation continues to gather momentum. Earlier this month, Rockefeller Center unveiled "Reversed Double Helix," an outdoor installation by the artist featuring a multipart polychrome sculpture ensemble as well as two huge painted balloons tethered over the skating rink. Rumors continue to fly about the price and availability of the work. In an attempt to gain some clarification on the matter, a call was placed to the artist's New York representative, the Marianne Boesky Gallery. The gallery declined to quote a price on the piece, but the New York Times reported that it was sold for an estimated $1.5 million, and Artnet News reported that the central sculpture in the ensemble, Mr. Pointy, was priced at $950,000. What's more, the work was conceived as an edition of three.
A quick perusal of auction results show that Murakami's market is in good shape. Recent sales include the record price paid for Miss Ko, a colorful life-size fiberglass figure. This work of intentional kitsch, la Jeff Koons, was estimated to bring $300,000-$400,000, but wound up selling for $567,500 (at Christie's New York in May 2003) -- and this was for a total edition of five.
Other successful results include the monster-size (94 x 248 in.) painting Magic Ball II, selling for $295,500 (Phillips, May 2003), the modest Fujisan (39 x 39 in.), which brought a whopping $176,000 (Sotheby's, May 2003) and the eyeball-covered mushroom picture, Dream of Opposite World, which made $321,100 (Christie's, May 2003).
However, not everything Murakami does sells. A large inflatable balloon, Guru Guru, failed to find a buyer at the same Christie's May sale.
Since his auction market is strong, why is Murakami rated as only a "Hold?" Mainly because the work has received too much hype too soon, resulting in ridiculously high prices. When the press starts referring to him as the "next Andy Warhol," you know it's time to question the market. In truth, Murakami is a talented artist. His "cartoon/video game" esthetic is an accurate reflection of our times. I personally get a kick out of his painted eyeballs with their long eyelashes.
However, given how expensive his work has become, it doesn't seem to have much room for appreciation. Although, I wouldn't bet against the eye of Stefan Edlis -- the respected collector who bought the record-setting Miss Ko -- the Murakami market doesn't feel like the real deal. It feels a little too speculative. At these prices, I would like to see the artist have five more years of production under his belt.
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of the art market memoir, I Bought Andy Warhol (Abrams), now available in bookstores and from Amazon.