Art + Celebrity = Value Inflation

Steve Martin may now be a more bankable star at the auction house than the box office. In 2006, Sotheby's (BID) anticipated a $15 million yield for a Martin-owned Edward Hopper painting, Night Window. Instead, the piece fetched $26.9 million. The Martin Factor will be tested again on Nov. 10 as Christie's plans to auction Ohhh...Alright..., Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 Pop masterpiece. The painting, once owned by Martin, is being sold by casino mogul—and power vegan—Steve Wynn. Expected cost: $40 million. The Martin Factor: priceless.

Despite its well-cultivated veneer of elitism, the art world caters to our celebrity-obsessed culture nearly as much as USWeekly. The newest evidence comes in the form of Christie's auction of 35 pieces from the late Dennis Hopper's collection on Nov. 10. One of those pieces is a portrait of Hopper painted by his friend Andy Warhol in 1971. Twelve years ago, Hopper shelled out $162,000 for the canvas. Now the work could be worth up to $1.2 million, according to Christie's.

While the leap in value has a lot to do with the skyrocketing prices for Warhols, this painting has extra cachet: Simply put, it belonged to a movie star. Christie's believes the Hopper trove could blow past its $10 million presale estimate. "It's what I call the X factor," says Cathy Elkies, Christie's senior vice-president of corporate and private collections.

This helps explain why auction houses duke it out for the right to handle celebrity offloadings. "There's no question that a famous name has an impact," says Sotheby's Vice-Chairman David Redden. "It's a pretty powerful factor in prices." The star factor was involved in Christie's 1994 sale of Barbra Streisand's collection, which amassed a $6.2 million yield—nearly $2 million above the presale estimate for Babs' art nouveau tchotchkes and deco Tiffany lamps. Last year, during the financial crunch, Christie's hosted one of the most successful celebrity sales of all time: a $443 million extravaganza from fashion trailblazer Yves Saint Laurent's estate. Even works owned by Mick Jagger's ex-wife Jerry Hall generated a premium in October when Sotheby's hammered down her collection for $3.98 million, surpassing the $2.4 million estimate. The power of celebrity is such that during its 1996 Jackie Kennedy Onassis sale, Sotheby's actually sold 100,000 copies of the auction program—and orchestrated an admission lottery to view the preview sale.

Of course, fame can easily turn into notoriety. And in the art world, that can tank a sale. In May, Mel Gibson's offering of Maxfield Parrish paintings at Christie's was expected to bring in $15.9 million. However, the actor's collection reached just $10.9 million. One can only speculate at the buyers' remorse after tapes of Gibson's most recent nutjob tirade emerged.

November sales will test the limits of the Martin Factor. On Nov. 4, Sotheby's was set to auction two paintings owned by Demi Moore, one of which was William Bouguereau's Frere et Soeur. Bouguereau, known for academic paintings of Cupids and nymphs, holds appeal for a small band of traditional collectors. The works do not seem quite germane to an actress who posed nude for a magazine while seven months pregnant and once played a gun-toting Navy SEAL. Sotheby's anticipated a $1.5 million sale, though some were skeptical about whether buyers will pay top dollar for works that may have hung in Ashton Kutcher's living room. "Demi and Bouguereau?" says art adviser Cristin Tierney. "Demi is not known for art connoisseurship, and most 19th century work in the vein of Bouguereau isn't very fashionable right now." Meanwhile, on Nov. 21, Phillips de Pury & Co. is putting more than 80 works from Ponzi scheming lawyer Marc S. Dreier's $40 million collection up for sale, including pieces by Damien Hirst and Jasper Johns. Ownership history won't technically play a part in the houses' presale assessments of either cache's value. "They are motivated to put an estimate that has some grounding with reality," says New York art adviser Wendy Crowmell. "They can't always bank on the celebrity appeal."

As for the Dennis Hopper collection, however, art advisers believe buyers will be interested in owning a piece of Hopper's je ne sais quoi. "Hopper so encapsulates a particular attitude and era," says Tierney. "He had a voracious cultural appetite," says Elkies. "He was an artist and a collector. It was an organic thing." The Christie's sale includes a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, which the auction house estimates could fetch up to $7 million. There's also a Julian Schnabel portrait of Hopper rendered in smashed ceramic plates that's tagged to earn up to $200,000. Will buyers who pay up for Hopper souvenirs live to regret it? Tierney thinks not. "The market is recovering and prices will go up," she says. "If you are a little bit aggressive and hit the top end of the estimate, you are still O.K. in this market."

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