In 1962, when few people knew Andy Warhol's name, much less his future, Los Angeles' Ferus Gallery mounted an exhibition of 32 paintings of Campbell's soup cans. Not only did few takers come along at $100 apiece, but neighboring art dealer David Stuart was so amused by the image that he filled his gallery window with actual Campbell's soup cans selling at two for 39 cents.
Today, the 32 paintings are insured for $2.5 million, according to former Ferus Gallery director Irving Blum. Just last week, they were installed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on long-term loan.
Nobody planned it that way, but the National Gallery installation came only days after Warhol's unexpected death Feb. 22 following gallbladder surgery.
More deliberate, however, is the art market's response to the passing of a major artist into art history. In New York, Warhol's longtime dealer, Leo Castelli, and Warhol's own studio have frozen sales, at least for the time being. But other sellers were more eager, and Sotheby's auction house has been "absolutely inundated" with phone calls from people trying to peddle everything from paintings to signed dollar bills.
Some Los Angeles dealers, meanwhile, are doing brisk business in recent Warhols. In conjunction with the Martin Lawrence Galleries chain, Robertson Boulevard dealer Michael Kohn last December exhibited dozens of new Warhol silk-screen paintings of Campbell's soup boxes. Both Kohn and Martin Lawrence are already handling resales; a Campbell's soup box silk-screen (measuring 14 inches by 14 inches) sold for $7,000 as recently as December was resold soon after Warhol's death for $12,500.
"We're now paying on the open market three times what we were paying two weeks ago," says Martin Blinder, chairman of the Los Angeles-based gallery chain. "And I must say I'm happy to pay it when the (artwork) is available."
Consider the New York dealer who just called to offer Blinder a set of 10 "Mao" silk-screen prints for $25,000. The portfolio, depicting the late Chinese chairman Mao, was published in 1972 and, says Blinder, was selling at between $8,000 and $10,000 one month ago. If the portfolio turns out to be in good condition, Blinder adds, he expects to buy it, break it up and offer the individual prints at $4,000 to $5,000 each.
New York dealer Ronald Feldman, who collaborated with Warhol on many projects in recent years, reports similar demand. A print of Albert Einstein that might have been selling for $6,000 two weeks ago is now selling for $10,000 to $12,000, says Feldman, "and my whole problem is how to keep the prices within reason. Andy Warhol's prints, compared to those of artists like Jasper Johns or David Hockey, were low by comparison. They are now catching up. And I'm sure they will surpass those prices. On one simple fact--that Andy is not making any more. We can now see the whole market from beginning to end."
Nobody knew when Warhol was born, says Patterson Sims, associate curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art's permanent collection, "but we all know when he died (probably at the age of 57). In that act of dying, he definitively concluded this astonishing outpouring in both images and words and his insistent existential style. . . . He now becomes a sort of heroic figure of his generation."
Warhol's incessant marketing of his art, films and personage often made him as familiar to America's households as the famous people he painted, and the artist did little to discourage celebrityhood.
Warhol also left behind a sizable body of work. Castelli counts up portraits alone of more than 100 people, figuring Warhol's paintings must number in the thousands. A 1985 publication lists 364 different Warhol prints, generally in limited editions of 150 to 250 each, and several of the artist's most recently completed print series have yet to be distributed.
Major Warhol paintings, of course, are in a class by themselves, and potential sellers indicate they are waiting to see what happens in the marketplace. This is particularly true of Warhol's work before 1965, works that already command very high prices.
Warhol's "200 One Dollar Bills," painted in 1962, fetched $385,000 at a Sotheby's sale last fall in New York from the estate of pop art collector Robert Scull, and Sotheby's Los Angeles executive Barbara Pallenberg estimates that it could command $500,000 today. Saying an early '60s painting was sold privately to a New York collector for $1 million almost a year ago, dealer Feldman is predicting future sales in the millions.
Dealers agree that Warhol's most important--and, not surprising, most valuable--work dates back to the early '60s. "His death caught us all by surprise," comments curator Sims. "He was in the midst of an extraordinary range of work, and all of that work reminds us that his essential contribution occurred from 1961 to 1965 when he identified the seminal images of his time and a methodology for the transformation of the commonplace into an elevating art experience. Those images can not help but be more passionately sought with the conclusion of his fantastic fertility."
Many observers also single out Warhol's early "disaster" paintings of plane crashes and race riots. "All the more worldly collectors who were deeply involved in collecting, who were trying to fill gaps in there own collections, and understanding that Warhol had to be there, were trying to get (the disaster paintings)," says Los Angeles dealer Margo Leavin. "There were already a very small group of collectors who could afford them and, for a lot of people, they will now be totally out of range."
Dealers and auctioneers alike expect it could be six months or more before the marketplace stabilizes, and not all of Warhol's pricese. Lucy Mitchell-Innes, vice president and director of Sotheby's contemporary art department, notes that with Warhol, as with Henry Moore and other artists who died in recent years, it takes time before their work is reassessed. And when that reassessment is made, she says, it often occurs that the best and most important works become more valuable and the lesser works become less valuable.
At the low end of the price spectrum, for instance, there are already many artworks, not to mention signed dollar bills, in the marketplace.
And at the higher end of the spectrum, Mitchell-Innes and others suggest that one view any Warhol frenzy within the context of a very hot art market. At Sotheby's alone, says Mitchell-Innes, a contemporary art sale that brought in $5 million was considered "incredible" as recently as 1983; Sotheby's contemporary art sales in November alone last year brought in more than $30 million.
The market for Warhol in particular was sparked in recent months by sales to Charles Saatchi, a legendary London-based collector who Castelli says purchased "at least 15 to 20 major early paintings." When Saatchi started buying Warhol around mid-1984, says New York dealer Paula Cooper, "that gave a big shot in the arm to the Warhol market."
Not that Warhol wasn't already recognized and acquired by both public and private buyers. "All of the important California collectors and museums have Warhol in their collections," says Castelli. "All of them."
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has two major Warhol artworks from the '60s, Director Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III commented that "I'm pleased we have them. I wouldn't want to have to acquire them now." Boston's Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year acquired a Warhol "disaster" painting of multiple electric chairs for $350,000, says dealer Irving Blum, who speculates that if the same museum were to seek the same painting today, it would pay twice that sum "and, conceivably, significantly more."
The bulk of Warhol's estimated $15-million estate reportedly will go to a charity for the visual arts, but nobody knows how much of that estate includes unreleased Warhol artworks. Dealer guesses vary from "a lot" to "enormous," and Warhol dealer Castelli expects a number of paintings to come into the marketplace.
Unlike older artists whose productivity generally waned before their deaths, Warhol was also extremely productive in recent years. Unfinished at his death was "TV sets," a series that Feldman describes as "loosely based on the history of American television"; only the "moon walk" print was finished before Warhol died, Feldman says, and the others will not be completed. The dealer says a Danish group has completed, but not yet released, Warhol portraits of Hans Christian Andersen and various images from Andersen's fairy tales.
Also recently completed were paintings commissioned by Mercedes-Benz, and new Warhol portraits of Lenin are currently showing at the Berndt Kluser Gallery in Munich.
What might Warhol have thought of the increasing prices of his work? "Andy always thought they should have been higher," says dealer Feldman. "He always thought his work was underpriced."