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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|John Guare's 1991 play, Six Degrees of Separation, famously hypothesizes that every person on this planet is only six people removed from everyone else.
In the art world, you could say that each person is but once removed from Andy Warhol. Everyone has at one time either bought a Warhol, sold a Warhol, written about Warhol, curated a Warhol show, read a book about Warhol, watched a Warhol film or viewed a Warhol in a museum. In theory, Andy Warhol is the unifying element in the world of contemporary art.
It's also true that as the most actively traded artist in the world, Andy Warhol has a disproportionately large influence on the contemporary art market. Anyone interested in the market has only to check out Warhol auction prices to get a quick fix on its overall health. If you looked over Warhol prices from the late 1990s, you probably liked what you saw. From an insignificant Toy painting to a classic Liz, prices exceeded even those from the late 1980s boom market.
The main event of the 1990s was the sale of one of the greatest Pop paintings to ever come up to auction, Orange Marilyn. The 40 by 40 inch painting, made in 1964, sold for $17.3 million at Sotheby's in May, 1998, breaking the previous world record of "only" $4 million for Warhol's Shot Red Marilyn, set nine years earlier in 1989.
Orange Marilyn has a fascinating history. The painting emerged kicking and screaming from Warhol's studio and landed in the lap of the Leo Castelli Gallery. It was immediately purchased by insurance executive Leon Kraushar for approximately $2,500. Even back in 1963, $2,500 was not a lot of money. Yet, it was a gutsy purchase, because Warhol was far from a sure thing. Leon Kraushar, along with Burton and Emily Tremaine, art book publisher Harry Abrams and taxi fleet owner Robert Scull, were America's biggest Pop collectors. Of the four, Kraushar was the least celebrated but, arguably, possessed the best eye.
While the Tremaines, Abrams and Scull were certainly deeply committed collectors, Kraushar could be described as messianic. Listen to his prescience back in 1965 during an interview with Life magazine: "Pop is the art of today, and tomorrow, and all the future. These pictures are like IBM stock, don't forget that, and this is the time to buy, because Pop is never going to die."
It was a shame that Kraushar, who passed away at the end of the 1960s, didn't live long enough to see how right he was. Given how small the art world is, I was only mildly surprised when I wound up meeting his son Fred, who lives in Oakland. Fred continued the story of Orange Marilyn by explaining that his father's death led to his mother's decision to sell the collection in its entirety to the German collector, Carl Str÷her.
Fred was just a teenager at the time, and although he got a kick out of the art, he was too young to have any feel for its financial potential. Although his mother got a good price, it was little more than chump change in today's terms. When I told Fred that Orange Marilyn had just sold at auction for over $17 million, he winced and swallowed hard, but maintained his sense of humor by responding, "I feel like putting my head in the oven!"
At any rate, the sale of Orange Marilyn energized the Warhol market and the contemporary art market in general. While many would argue that one spectacular price does not make a market, in reality the sale indicated how high prices could go for quality Warhols. That theory was confirmed at Sotheby's London in December, 1998, when a first-rate, small (12 by 10 inch) Mao brought an outrageous $234,500. The previous high water mark had been exactly $100,000 less.
So what's the outlook for the future? If you're thinking of acquiring a Warhol, the possibilities are almost endless. When it comes to sheer variety of subject matter, Warhol is the most democratic of artists. However, like everything else, it comes down to price and availability. As time goes on, it's becoming increasingly difficult to buy a Warhol painting of any quality for under $50,000.
Over the next few years, if you're willing to think small and are willing to spend up to $50,000, you will still be able to buy: 8-inch-square Flowers, Dollar Signs, Shadows, Guns, Soup Boxes, Knives and Ladies and Gentlemen (drag queens).
If your budget can be stretched to $50,000-$100,000, the following series still offer good value for small-scale works: 14-inch-square Flowers, small Shoes, Hammers and Sickles, and wooden box sculptures (Brillo, Mott's, etc).
Moving up to the $100,000-$200,000 level, I would recommend buying: small Maos, Skulls, Jackies, small Self-Portraits (1978, 1986), and Marilyn Reversals.
In the $250,000-$500,000 range, you can't go wrong with: 24-inch-square Flowers, small Electric Chairs, four-panel Marilyn Reversals, 22-inch-square Self-Portraits (1967, 1986), medium-sized Maos, or small Car Crashes.
One underrated area in Warhol's oeuvre is that of his "anonymous" commissioned portraits. These came about during the early 1970s when Warhol's savvy business manager, Fred Hughes, had an epiphany. He realized that not only would the rich and famous pay good money for Andy to paint their likeness, but the rich and unknown would do the same. After all, everyone wants to be glamorous and immortalized. As Warhol himself said, "If everybody's not a beauty, then nobody is."
Warhol's operating procedure was to invite a potential client to lunch at the studio. She or he would be treated to gourmet food catered by Balducci's and flattered by the opportunity to share a table with a superstar or two. During the 1970s, you never knew who might stop by: Mick Jagger, Halston, John McEnroe, Mikhail Baryshnikov or even Jacqueline Onassis. Thanks in part to his ownership of Interview magazine, Warhol was nothing if not a magnet for the rich and famous. In fact, Warhol should be credited with being early to recognize a future trend -- the birth of America's "celebrity culture."
After lunch, Warhol would invite his now star-struck client (often the wife of a wealthy businessman) into the studio where he would snap 60 or so Polaroids of her. From this group of photos, Warhol would select the most flattering pose and doctor it to make it even more becoming. It was as if he were performing some sort of painless plastic surgery. A photo-silkscreen would be made and Warhol would then screen the image onto four pre-painted 40 by 40 inch canvases. Although the poses were the same, each canvas was painted with varying background colors.
When the works were finished, the sitter was invited back to the studio to select her favorite. If she bought only one, she was charged a standard $25,000. However, if she was having trouble making up her mind, she was discreetly informed that each additional painting was only $15,000. More often than not, her affluent husband would be thrilled by the results and, being a good businessman, buy both of them, averaging them out at only $20,000 apiece. With approximately one weekly sitting at $40,000 a pop, Warhol's portraits alone could have brought in over $2 million a year.
In 1979, the art world got a peek at Warhol's cash machine when the Whitney Museum organized a show devoted entirely to his portraits. Besides his unknown subjects, the exhibition also included paintings of well-known art world figures such as David Hockney and Henry Geldzahler. There was even a sentimental painting of Warhol's mother. Surprisingly, the show was well received by the press. Afterward, dealer Ivan Karp was quoted as saying Warhol's portraiture was "the best of its kind in this century," a statement that would be hard to dispute.
Ironically, you can currently purchase one of these portraits for little more than the sitter originally paid. You might ask, why would you want a painting of an obscure socialite? The answer is, if you can get beyond this thinking, these are large bold Warhol paintings. Warhol's portraits look terrific in a home and are instantly recognizable. Someday, they will be collected the way people collect anonymous 19th-century portraits. During the next five years, they could easily sell for $50,000-$100,000.
A quick final note -- when buying Warhol paintings make sure the picture has a logical provenance (history of ownership) and is either signed or stamped by the estate. When it comes to Warhol paintings, a solid provenance is more important than a signature.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at (415) 885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.