Warhol’s $200 Million ‘Marilyn’ Could Test Art Market’s Health

In 1985, the dealer Tony Shafrazi designed a poster promoting his show of paintings made jointly by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The image featured the two artists in boxing gloves as if preparing to spar with one another.

Though playful, the poster hinted at the complicated relationship between Warhol and Basquiat; they were competitors as well as collaborators and close friends. Decades later, that rivalry continues to play out in the market arena: In 2017, a Basquiat skull painting brought $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, eclipsing the sale of a Warhol car crash painting for $105.4 million in 2013.

In market terms at least, the latest round is likely to go to Warhol. On Monday evening in a charity auction at Christie’s, Warhol’s 1964 silk-screen of Marilyn Monroe, “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” is estimated to sell for about $200 million, which would be the highest price achieved for any American work of art at auction. (It could also surpass the global auction record for a 20th century work of art, the $179.4 million paid in 2015 for Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’).”

In kicking off the spring auction season in New York, Christie’s Monday night event is widely viewed as a bellwether for the two weeks of sales ahead, as well as an indicator of the wider health of an international art market still emerging from the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There’s been a huge amount held back for two years, and there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand from new clients,” said Philip Hoffman, the founder of The Fine Art Group, a New York-based advisory company, adding that the upcoming auctions could raise as much as $2 billion. “Everyone was waiting for the right moment, and the right moment has come.”

Christie’s sale is likely to show whether top quality trophies continue to command high prices, no matter the instability in the world — be it a war overseas, a pandemic or a terrorist attack.

Nevertheless the pool of buyers who can afford to spend more than $100 million for a painting remains small. And with a surfeit of blue chip art coming up for sale over the next two weeks, it is still unclear whether there is a sufficient population of wealthy collectors who can absorb that much big-ticket material.

“These moments are few and getting fewer,” said Alex Rotter, the chairman of Christie’s departments specializing in sales of 20th and 21st century art. For Rotter, the 40-inch-by-40-inch painting is “the essence of everything” Warhol. “He defines his position in art history and popular culture,” Rotter added.

The painting was in the collection of the Swiss dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann, and the proceeds from the Monday sale of 36 works will go to their foundation, which supports children’s programs. In an unusual arrangement, the buyer will have a say in choosing which charity 20 percent of the “Marilyn” proceeds are allocated, Christie’s announced Sunday.

The Ammann siblings in 1977 founded a Zurich gallery that specialized in Impressionist, Modern, Postwar and contemporary artists. After Thomas’s death in 1993, Doris continued to lead the gallery. She died last year.

Christie’s auction is unusual in that none of the Ammann works is accompanied by a guarantee — a minimum price at which a third party or the auction house has committed to purchase the work. The Ammann estate, according to Rotter, wanted to maximize the charitable proceeds of the auction.

The vibrant Marilyn painting, which Rotter had called “the most significant 20th-century painting to come to auction in a generation” was based on a promotional photo from the actress’s film “Niagara,” part of a Warhol series of “Shot Marilyn” portraits. In 1964, a woman walked into Warhol’s Factory studio with a pistol and shot at a stack of four Marilyn paintings. Christie’s canvas was not pierced by the bullet, Rotter said. There are five in all (one escaped the shooting). Other versions from this trophy series are owned by the American collectors Steven A. Cohen, Kenneth Griffin and Peter Brant.

Striking for its bright blue eye shadow, yellow hair and red lips, the work had been exhibited at institutions including the Guggenheim in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London.

“Warhol’s choice of the studio headshot, the close cropping of Marilyn’s face and the contrast of color all draw the eye to Marilyn’s lips, which hinge between a smile and an expression of clenched teeth,” said Jessica Beck, the curator of art at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “It’s that tension that gives this painting its magic.”

Christie’s made the most of its Warhol prize with a theatrical presentation before the sale; at the auction house’s preview, a red carpet led toward a lit sign, “Warhol’s Marilyn,” before visitors entered the darkened room that held the lone painting illuminated in a new large white frame.

As the auction week unfurls, Christie’s on May 12 will offer a 1909 Picasso bronze cast, “Head of a Woman (Fernande),” that was recently deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to fund new acquisitions. It is estimated at $30 million.

The following week, on May 16, Sotheby’s will offer the remainder of th
e Macklowe collection, the fruits of the bitter divorce between the real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his former wife Linda, the first cache of which brought $676.1 million last fall. On May 19, in its evening sale of contemporary art, the auction house will offer a 1969 Cy Twombly blackboard painting and Francis Bacon’s “Study of Red Pope 1962, 2nd Version 1971,” both estimated at $40 million to $60 million.

Also uncertain is how the work of Black artists — currently much in demand — will sell this season. At Sotheby’s, Kerry James Marshall’s “Beauty Examined” is estimated at $8 million to $12 million; Julie Mehretu’s “Emergent Algorithm (Manara Circle, Palestine)” for $3 million to $4 million; and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s “11pm Sunday” for $1.2 million to $1.8 million.

At Christie’s, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “Within this dark channel (all you could see was what she could give you)” is estimated at $400,000 to $600,000; Amoako Boafo’s “Yellow Dress” at $250,000 to $350,000; and Reggie Burrows Hodges’s “Intersection of Color: Experience,” for $200,000 to $300,000.

The Warhol-Basquiat relationship comes to the fore even as Basquiat’s sisters are presenting an immersive show of their brother’s work, which highlights Warhol, and as Ryan Murphy’s docuseries, “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” is streaming on Netflix and details the artists’ history with one another.

The series talks about how, after reading The New York Times review of the Shafrazi show — “Warhol, TKO [technical knockout] in 16 rounds” — Basquiat went into something of a depression, particularly stung by the suggestion that he had become “an art world mascot.”

On May 18, a bright orange 1982 untitled Basquiat will come to the auction block at Phillips with an estimate of $70 million; the seller, the Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, bought it just six years ago at Christie’s for $57.3 million. At least this year in market terms, Warhol’s title seems secure.

“I just love that, even in death, they’re still in this boxing match with one another,” said Beck of the Warhol Museum. “They’re still competing in the market and there is still such a frenzy of attention in their work and their work remains so contemporary.”

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