If the art market is part of the ongoing economic recovery in the US, people who are selling anything made by Andy Warhol seem to be its beneficiaries.
In this season's major New York auctions, Warhol icons led the way, whether it was with multiple images of Elizabeth Taylor, soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, or self-portraits.
Beyond the high end of the market, which Warhol shared with his Pop peer Roy Lichtenstein, generalisations were harder to make. Yet the upward tilt was evident, especially among the buying elite, who also favoured blue-chip works in the previous week's Impressionist and Modern auctions.
"The confidence of the wealthy of the world is concentrated in the art world," declared Frances Beatty of Richard Feigen & Co, a New York gallery.
The evening sale at Christie's on November 10 had 15 Warhols among the 75 lots that were offered, which included works from the estate of the actor Dennis Hopper. Despite pent-up demand, the buying energy in the room was steady but never volcanic. The cover lot, the quirky 1962 Warhol painting Big Campbell's Soup Can and Can Opener (Vegetable) brought only US$23,882,500 (Dh87,691,761), which fell short of the auction house's low estimate of $30 million. The price also fell short of $42,642,500, the world auction record for Roy Lichtenstein, which was paid that night at Christie's for Ohhh…Alright…, an image of a woman on the telephone from 1964 in the Pop painter's trademark comic book style.
All 15 Warhols sold in the Christie's auction. The last lot in the marathon sale, Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes (1981), generated enough interested from exhausted bidders to fetch $1,762,500. "The more there is, the more the market wants, which Andy would have loved," said the Christie's contemporary art specialist Amy Cappelazzo. Warhol might have especially loved the bidding from all over the saleroom for his purplish Dollar Sign (1981), which sold for $5,122,500.
Buyers spent a total of $272,873,000 at the Christie's sale, which surpassed other contemporary sales of the week, and exceeded Christie's contemporary auction of one year ago by some $200 million. Christie's staff was exultant. Besides the sheer volume of the sale, the auctioneers noted that 63 per cent of the buyers were American. It was a sign, Cappellazzo said, that "Americans were no longer sitting on their hands".
At Sotheby's the day before, bidding for the same artists was strong in the contemporary sale, which totalled $222,454,500. Again, Warhol led the pack. Coca-Cola (large Coca-Cola), a 1962 black and white painting of a coke bottle that was the evening's cover lot, sold for $35,362, 500. Sotheby's sought to warm up the crowd by serving Coke in old-fashioned bottles before the sale to clients who were more accustomed to champagne.
The auctioneer Tobias Meyer, the head of Sotheby's contemporary department, brushed off the fact that a Warhol had fetched a higher price at Phillips de Pury & Company the previous night.
"Andy has become the icon of the market and the icon of global desire," he said, noting that the sheer number of bids on the picture were hard to juggle. "Warhol is part of the canon, and Richter is going to enter that canon also." Two paintings by Gerhard Richter sold at Sotheby's for more than $10 million, anointing the German painter as an artist with what the trade calls "auction value". Another Richter painting sold for $12,962,500 at Christie's.
The mere mention of Warhol could add value at the Sotheby's sale. A small sculpture of bent metal in bright colours by John Chamberlain, which Warhol once owned, sold for $600,000, three times its high estimate.
An untitled abstract canvas by Mark Rothko brought $22,482,500. The Rothko went to an Asian buyer, Meyer said, in a rare disclosure of where Sotheby's clients came from.
Walking out of the sale, the New York dealer Jack Tilton gave his verdict on the market. "Healthy, very healthy," Tilton said, acknowledging that he dropped out of the bidding for Willem de Kooning's Red Man, a fiery 1970 abstraction that sold for $2 million. "We all have our limits," Tilton said. Not all bidders did, however. De Kooning's Montauk III, another reddish abstraction, from 1969, sold for $9, 938,500.
The recent election that swept Republicans into office in most the United States, and is said to have lifted business confidence, had no effect on sale prices, said the Sotheby's contemporary specialist Anthony Grant. "Our customers, Republican or Democrat, know what they're interested in," he noted.
At Phillips de Pury & Company, the world's third-largest auction house, which rarely witnesses major sales, Andy Warhol's Men in Her Life (1962), a monochrome canvas of multiple images of Elizabeth Taylor, sold for $63,362,500, the week's highest price in a sale that brought a total of $137 million. It was the inaugural sale in Phillips's new auction space on the corner of 57th Street and Park Avenue, which highlighted Charlie, a mechanical boy on a motorised tricycle by Mauricio Cattelan that brought $2,994,500 after it rolled across the room in front of the auctioneer's podium . In the novelty auction, the first in a series that Phillips calls Carte Blanche, 33 lots were selected by the private dealer Philippe Segalot, formerly of Christie's, whose firm now advises Christie's owner, Francois Pinault, on art buying. The identity of the buyer of the Warhol Men in Her Life was not disclosed, but at that price, Pinault is one collector who could afford the work.
After the auction, Segalot acknowledged that he had supplied not just the art for the sale, but the buyers. Despite the success of the Phillips auction, Segalot and the auctioneer Simon de Pury said that Segalot would not be returning as a "curator", and that each future Carte Blanche sale would be selected by a different guest. De Pury, who declined to identify the next "curator", noted that Phillips has "a long-term lease" in the cramped location midway between Sotheby's and Christie's in Manhattan. He stressed that the company was there to stay, although insiders warned that Segalot would be a tough act to follow.
A decade ago, Phillips attempted to compete aggressively with Sotheby's and Christie's for consignments in another posh location, also on 57th Street. Its strategy was bankrolled by the luxury brands mogul Bernard Arnault of LVMH, who abandoned the auction business after losing money on high-profile sales on which Simon de Pury was the auctioneer. This time, de Pury said, the contemporary art market is broader and more international than it was a decade ago. So far, however, the art market has resisted sustaining a third auction house on the same level as Sotheby's and Christie's. Sceptics are not betting on Phillips.
And some sceptics aren't betting on the market in general. "We are in the lying phase of the recovery. A year and half ago, things seemed so grim that no one could deny it, but now people like to pretend that everything is bubbling along just fine," said the veteran dealer Jane Kallir of Galerie St Etienne on 57th Street. "The tendency to focus on record-breaking auction results masks the fact that the art market has experienced a severe contraction. There are fewer buyers today than in 2007, and overall less art is being sold, at lower prices."
But that warning didn't keep the champagne from flowing at the auction houses.