By Thane Peterson Here's a question of considerable financial interest this fall: Is Andy Warhol overrated? Art experts have come to a consensus that the flamboyant and prolific pop artist known for his paintings of Campbell Soup cans is probably the most important artist of the late 20th century. The monetary importance of that assessment has been clear since 1998, when a Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Orange Marilyn, soared beyond all expectations at a Sotheby's auction and was gaveled down at an incredible $17.3 million. No single work has approached that record since then, but the average price of Warhol paintings and prints has continued to climb rapidly.
A whole bunch of Warhol works will be on offer at the big New York contemporary art auctions in November, at prices ranging from $25,000 or $30,000 for prints on up into the millions for significant paintings. The one with the highest estimated price appears to be Silver Liz, a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg's New York sale that the auction house estimates will fetch $4 million to $6 million. It's being sold by an art dealer.
ASTUTE SELLERS. However, lots of savvy businesspeople/collectors also have contemporary pieces on sale this fall -- and several are selling Warhols (see BW, 11/4/02, "It May Be Time to Unload that Warhol"). These are people who only rarely sell works out of their collections, and they're all astute businesspeople with long records of buying low and selling high. You have to wonder: Why are they selling art this fall, and why is Warhol at the top of so many sell lists?
I suspect the collectors fear the market is finally starting to top out and are hoping lightning will strike twice -- that fierce bidding will break out for one or several of the Warhols and drive the price into the stratosphere, as happened at Sotheby's in 1998. "That's always the wild card," says Amy Cappellazzo, head of Christie's Contemporary Art Dept. in New York. "It all depends on the chemistry of the auction room."
Some examples of works on the block: French business tycoon François Pinault, owner of the Christie's International auction house and one of the world's top 10 collectors, according to ARTnews magazine, is selling Big Electric Chair, a 1967 Warhol painting with an estimated worth of $3 million to $4 million.
STILL FAITHFUL? Retired investment banker Kent Logan, another top collector, confirms that he's selling two Warhols, including one of the series of Last Supper paintings (after Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper) that Warhol did shortly before his death in 1987. It's expected to fetch around $1.5 million.
Wellesley (Mass.) real estate investor Gerald Fineberg, also a major collector, is selling a Warhol double self-portrait at Christie's with an estimated value of $2.5 million to $3.5 million.
The collectors aren't saying why they've put their Warhols on sale, but it isn't necessarily because of a loss of faith in the artist's importance. They may be just judiciously pruning their extensive collections. Logan owns about 30 Warhols in addition to the two he's selling. Though he won't talk publicly about his reasons for the sale, he does say he still agrees with the assessment that Warhol is the most important painter of the second half of the 20th century.
"He captured the spirit of the 1960s perfectly, much more so than any other artist," Logan says, adding that he was a greater influence on later generations of artists than any other painter of his era.
SKILL SHORTAGE? If there's a breakout painting in the bunch, it may be the double self-portrait Fineberg is selling at Christie's. Though Warhol was highly prolific, his best paintings are now relatively rare, notes New York gallery owner Ronald Feldman, who knew the artist and has sold a lot of his work. Warhol self-portraits are much sought-after, and this one has an excellent pedigree. Fineberg bought the painting, which is based on a snapshot taken in a Times Square photo booth, from the renowned pop art collector Robert Scull at a now-legendary sale back in 1986.
However, if I were paying millions for a Warhol painting (no danger of that, of course) I'd have a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Only a hopeless Philistine would even ask, I guess, but was Warhol really such a great painter? The silk-screen technique he used didn't require a lot of skill. And you have to wonder if the celebrities, products, and other pop-culture images he painted will seem compelling 20 or 30 years from now.
David Kusin, a Dallas consultant who advises museums, banks, and other institutions on the art market, thinks soaring Warhol prices are an example of "the pitfalls of fashion" when buying art. Fashionable artists are rarely the ones deemed historically important in the end, he says. His firm did a study of the most successful English artists from 1840 to 1860 and found that none of them are remembered now. "The people who are paying millions for these paintings are going to be looking awfully foolish in 15 or 20 years," he predicts.
A LONG SHADOW. Still, that's definitely a minority viewpoint in the art world right now. Cappellazzo ranks Warhol even above Picasso as the most important artist of the 20th century. Her reasoning: While Picasso left almost no disciples, Warhol has had an enormous influence on virtually every artist who has followed him. "Every 18-year-old artist in art school right now is desperately trying to figure out how to get out of Warhol's shadow," she says. "He is supremely important."
Like many art experts, Cappellazzo predicts that Warhol prices will continue to soar until they rival those of Picasso, whose paintings command up to $50 million. "Sit down and buckle your seatbelts," she says. "We're nowhere near the high end of Warhol prices." Maybe the fall auctions will give a clearer picture of whether Warhol's pedestal is secure. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online