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Jan. 27, 2009 

Could Warholmania finally be over? The run-up in auction prices for works by Andy Warhol that began back in May 1998, when Orange Marilyn (1964) sold for $17.3 million to S.I. Newhouse, hit a top with the purchase of Green Car Crash (1963) for $71.7 million in May 2007. The buyer was Philippe Niarchos, according to a report in the Art Newspaper by Sarah Thornton.

In the intervening 18 months, however, the Warhol market has slowed considerably. According to Artnet’s Market Performance Report on Andy Warhol, almost $450.1 million worth of works (excluding prints) by the Pope of Pop changed hands at auction in 2007. The total for 2008, however,  is substantially less (even accounting for that $71.7 million lot): $226 million. That’s a drop of 50 percent by value.

A total of 449 Warhol lots were offered in 2007 (again excluding prints), with 388 finding buyers. In 2008, 509 Warhol lots were offered, and 266 sold -- a drop in the sell-through rate from 86 percent to 52 percent. For prints, however, the market slow-down is less obvious, with an impressive 980 of 1,105 lots finding buyers in 2007, and 992 of 1,474 lots selling in 2008 -- an increase in the number of lots, but a drop in the sell-through from about 88 percent to 67 percent.

Into this market maelstrom comes "Warhol from the Sonnabend Collection," Jan. 20-Feb. 28, 2009, an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, accompanied by a beautiful catalogue, with essays by John Richardson and Brenda Richardson and considerable art-historical detail on the relationship between Warhol and dealer Ileana Sonnabend. The show includes Four Marilyns (1962), a wall of "Flowers" (14 paintings in all), three "Car Crashes," a Jackie Nine Times and two gold "Jackies," four large "Campbell’s Tomato Soup" paintings in weird colors, a pair of large "Liz" paintings and a juicy little "Mao" from 1973. In all, the group numbers 50 works, most from 1962-65.

A silver "Electric Chair Twice" (titled Silver Disaster #6) is not on view, nor is White Burning Car Twice (1963), which uses the same Newsday photograph as the record-setting Green Car Crash (1963)

What’s it all worth? In April 2008, Carol Vogel reported in the New York Times that Gagosian paid $200 million to Sonnabend heirs Antonio Homem and Nina Sundell for the Warhol trove (the heirs were said to have parted with $600 million worth of art in all, to pay taxes on an estate valued at more than $1 billion). For practical purposes, we can assume that Gagosian got it for wholesale.

It’s easy to make the joke that the savvy dealer’s timing was bad and that no one will buy in this market -- one of the works is a 20 x 16 in. Campbell’s Turkey Noodle Soup from 1962, which is a little bit comical -- but that would be a mistake. Not too long ago, for instance, hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen was reported to have offered $40 million for a Warhol "Marilyn," unsuccessfully, before finally buying one for $80 million. Plenty of new trophies are available here.

Despite the fact that so many Warhol pictures grouped together can seem anticlimactic, almost all of them are rare and striking. If you need an argument that the art-market recession will be short and shallow, this exhibition is it. 

To estimate the values of individual Warhol works for yourself, just like an art-market player, log onto the signature Artnet Price Database.

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