On the Eve of the Whitney’s Big Warhol Retrospective

His Market Has Gotten Much Smaller

Katya Kazakina previews the Warhol retrospective that opens at the Whitney on November 12. If you can believe it, the show is the first major US exhibition of Warhol in almost 30 years. With 350 works, including loans from Peter Brant, José Mugrabi and Larry Gagosian (the three pillars of the Warhol market), the show ought to have been driving sales for the last 8 months leading up to the show. That’s what normally happens when a major artist gets a major show originating at a major New York museum and traveling to the Art Institute of Chicago and SFMoMA.

Instead, as Kazakina points out, the offerings in the Contemporary art evening sales are spare and lackluster (though the Gun is striking and impressive.) Here’s her description in Bloomberg:

  • “Collectors at auctions in New York next month won’t have the chance to bid on paintings of that caliber. The most expensive Warhol on offer is “Gun" (1981-82), estimated at $7 million to $10 million at Phillips. Christie’s lists “Birth of Venus (After Botticelli)" from 1984 at $2.5 million to $3.5 million. The same work failed to sell in London in March when it was estimated at 4.5 million pounds ($6.2 million) to 6.5 million pounds.”

So, what happened to the Warhol market? No one involved in Contemporary art has lost respect for Warhol. And the private sale of S.I. Newhouse’s Orange Marilyn for a rumored $250m late last year both validates that and provides evidence that the Warhol market is quite weak. Elsewhere, we’ve argued that $200m or more for Orange Marilyn is a relatively soft price. One can make an argument that gets the price close to $320m. Just as a telling, the Newhouse family’s agent chose not to make the rounds with Orange Marilyn (or sell it auction even though other works from the Newhouse estate are coming to auction now under the same advisor’s hand.) A legendary work with a long list of potential buyers, Orange Marilyn probably didn’t need an auction to get some competition going. That never happened because Kenneth Griffin is said to have made an exclusive deal.

The issue here may not be the Warhol market at all. The problem probably lies at the top of the Contemporary market. This season there are no major Francis Bacon works, no giant Richter abstracts (like the one Griffin bought several years ago,) no Twombly blackboards, no big Basquiat, or de Kooning or Rothko (yes, yes, we’ll get to that.)

It’s true that there’s an $80m Hockney (unheard of!) But that almost makes the case. Hockney’s market was non-existent before his recent retrospective. Since then, it has been going straight up and this painting was the possibly the single best work in the entire show. Plus, the consignor has market clout of his own far beyond most other sellers.

The other big lots available this November either come from the Ebsworth collection—the Hopper which we’ve argued here has a low estimate, and the de Kooning which is widely referred to as the weakest of the Woman series—or is an outlier like the de Menil Rothko which is estimated in the lower reaches of stratospheric prices.

Market cycles seem to have accelerated. Basquiat set records more than a year ago but has since quieted. Big prices for fresh works may have started to have a counter-intuitive effect on the market. The holy grail Basquiat, Untitled (Devil), that Maezawa bought in 2016 from Adam Lindemann for $57m was topped a year later by the Spiegel family’s Untitled (head) that made $110m. The realization that Maezawa was the market or the daunting price, either of these could have put buyers off the Basquiat market. That’s pretty much what has happened.

Francis Bacon, too, saw his market taper off after the $142m record price paid in 2014. Sales take place but within a price structure that still struggles to catch up with the expectations set by that record.

The Warhol market also peaked in 2014. But the last big sales were two works owned by a German casino—a Triple Elvis and Four Marlons—that made $151m. The two works were seen as a rare and fleeting opportunity.

Since that time, nothing has come to market that seems as, or more, compelling. The Orange Marilyn might have been that but we’ve already seen how some very market-smart folks decided that was not the way to go.

The market dynamic here may be that big records make any other purchase look weak. Either you’re paying too much for a work that isn’t of the best quality or you’ve paid a lot but it still looks puny beside these market peaks.

Meanwhile, the art market has hardly stalled. There’s been a wholesale shift to other names, other artists. The overall numbers are smaller but they’re stronger relative to previous prices and expectations. Bidding up Joan Mitchell instead of Rothko, KAWS as an alternative to Koons, is healthy for the market. This turn ought to be welcomed.

That doesn’t mean museum goers will ignore Warhol. They shouldn’t. He’s an important artist. Now may be a better time to think about his art as art, not worry about his prices.

At the same time, there still seems to be strong demand for his prints. As we pointed out earlier this week, Calvin Klein has been pumping out license Warhol images to great effect and will continue to do it.

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