What do collectors want from a big-name artist? Is it that big name itself or the work of art? The question asked when money ceases to be much of a consideration is whether to go for a work in the artist’s signature style — a Jeff Koons balloon dog or a Julian Schnabel smashed plate picture or a less familiar and perhaps more complicated and even a more interesting piece. There is a slightly patronizing assumption that many collectors are simply after trophy works, the pieces that scream “I own a Basquiat/Bacon/ Baselitz.” And while there is undoubtedly an element of that, the sums involved simultaneously pull many collectors in the opposite direction.
The ultimate aim is not just to own an instantly recognizable work by an instantly recognizable artist, but one of their best pieces, too. It is an equation that becomes increasingly complicated when an artist is as prolific as were both Picasso and Warhol, for example. The former produced an estimated 50,000 works while the latter turned out some 10,000 pieces between 1961 and his death in 1987. With such fecundity their work is a staple of dealers and the auction houses, so how does one judge and pick from such an array? In fact, the sales story of these two artists sends out a clear message that the highest prices are paid for the best or rather the most critically sanctioned pieces.
For Warhol, for example, the early 1960s are generally held to be his seminal years, when his pop culture screenprints shifted the notion of what Modern art could and should be. The fact that he largely worked in multiples was part and parcel of his critique of the consumer age and not, it seems, a reason for lower prices. In the list of the 75 most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, Warhol appears seven times, and six of those high-value works were made in the period between 1962 and 1964, and the seventh, “Four Marlons,” in 1966. The first of them to hit the $100 million mark was “Eight Elvises,” which reached that blue-ribbon level in a private sale in 2008 (a variant, “Triple Elvis,” went for $82 million in 2014). The picture had everything going for it: it is huge — 12 feet wide — and uses a publicity still of Elvis as a gunfighter from the film “Flaming Star”; it is unique — while Warhol made numerous other Elvis multiples (22 of Double Elvis for example) there is only one “Eight Elvises;” the picture had been little seen, being tucked away in the private collection of Annibale Berlingieri for 40 years; and it is clearly a Warhol but not a clichéd one — it does not show a soup can in other words. Nor does the most expensive Warhol of all, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” also from 1963, which sold in 2013 for $105.4 million. This picture comprises a series of images showing a body in the wreck of a car; Warhol claimed he was drawn to the original photograph in a newspaper because of its pictorial qualities rather than its human tragedy. The work, like “Eight Elvises,” was also in a private collection for decades but even better was (and is) the last serigraph in private hands. In fact, the most expensive of the soup-can pictures — perhaps the quintessential Warhol image — fetched a relatively modest $27.5 million last year.
The top 10 Warhols have limited themes — death and disaster pictures, a roster of super-celebrities (Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando), two works after Leonardo da Vinci, and one of a Coca-Cola bottle. The over-familiar A-listers, repeated in assorted color variations ad infinitum, are way down the list. Jackie Onassis comes in at number 38 ($20 million in 2011), Brigitte Bardot at 60 ($11.5 in 2014), Muhammad Ali at 86 ($9 million in 2007), and Debbie Harry at 145 ($6 million in 2011). By way of a footnote, in 2008 a Chinese collector apparently offered $100 million for a “Giant Mao” (Warhol produced 200 images of Mao mostly during the 1970s, four of which were “giant”) but the offer was rejected by the owner. Marilyn Monroe, the perfect Warhol subject — being famous, beautiful, instantly recognizable, tragic and dead — appears six times in his 50 most expensive works but the fact that his pictures of her at not at the very top of the tree suggests that the most discerning collectors find her perhaps too obvious and want more art-historically important and nuanced pictures.
Nevertheless, the bulk of the high-end Warhol market — and it is a bulky market, more than 300 of his works have fetched $2.7 million upwards — is in recognisable fare; self-portraits, skulls, dollar bills, celebrities. The fact that almost all of these are editions of multiples suggests that there are innumerable well-heeled buyers out there who simply want a Warhol, any Warhol.
The story with Picasso is slightly more nuanced in that his career contained several key phases — Blue, Rose, Cubist, Neoclassical and so on — rather than Warhol’s one. He occupies 13 places in the 75 most expensive paintings list and those works cover several periods. The most expensive is “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” from 1955, which sold in 2015 for $180 million. Following that in order are “Le Rêve”of 1932 (sold in a private sale for $155 million in 2013), “Garçon à la Pipe” of 1905 (for six years the most expensive painting ever sold at auction and which reached $104 million in 2004), “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” from 1932 ($106 million in 2010) and “Dora Maar au Chat”of 1941 ($95 million in 2006). Five paintings from four different decades all sold since the turn of the millennium.
A slightly closer look further down the most expensive list shows a curious phenomenon: four paintings from 1901 to 1908 sold in 1988 and 1989 for then record sums of between $38 million and $49 million. The suggestion being that for a brief window of time it was Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods that were seen as the most important of his career. Thirty years later and the 1930s perhaps occupies that position. There is every possibility that it is the very lack of consensus as to what pictures and period represent the ur-Picasso, the essence of his importance, that actually helps to keep the market for the full gamut of his work so vigorous.
What has become clear though is that contemporary collectors covet his paintings of women most — especially if they are of his mistresses such as Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar — and that while they like the spatial convolutions and form folding of the Cubism-inflected works, his pure Cubism from 1909 to 1919 has little appeal, regardless of its art-historical importance. And if with Picasso, as with Warhol, there is a relatively limited number of absolutely top-notch works available, there is a vast pool of secondary works that keeps the whole thing afloat. It is sales in these rather more ersatz works that means the Picasso market is perennially buoyant: since 1990 his sales have reached $100 million plus every year, with some spectacular over- performances — peaking in 2010 with cumulative sales of $436 million and in 2015 of $684 million. It is hard to believe, however protean an artist Picasso might be, that the quality of his output really was so high for so long and that these figures are a reflection across his oeuvre of his status among connoisseurs. Rather it points to there being two distinct markets for his work, one a small group of collectors in search of the rarest, era-defining works and the other, numerous eager consumers of the “Picasso brand.”
Both Picasso and Warhol perfectly exemplify the split role of artist and commodity: defined in the first instance by the grand narrative of history, scholarship, exhibitions and influence on other artists and in the second by public presence and the artist perceived as a shorthand or cipher for a certain type of hip artistic genius (in the words of Larry Gagosian, “There is something incredibly cool about Andy”). Put another way, Picasso and Warhol are among the rare figures whose appeal spans both high and low culture.
The case with some big-name Contemporary artists is more complicated. Damien Hirst, for example, is often mooted to have earned $1 billion even though the great bulk of his work sells well below the $1 million mark. He has had three spectacular auction successes with “The Golden Calf”($18.5 million in 2008), “Lullaby Spring” ($17 million in 2007) and “The Kingdom” ($17 million 2007) — vitrines containing respectively, a calf, pills and a shark — but no other individual works have topped $10 million. Indeed, it is noticeable that of his 50 highest grossing pieces only five were sold from 2010 onward. The market for a super-expensive Hirst, at auction at least, is no longer there — although a caveat is necessary: the most expensive of the works in last year’s “Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable” exhibition were rumored to be priced at $14 million. Hirst’s sales are notoriously opaque, nevertheless, it is clear that his imposing record is based on such easily identifiable pieces as his splash, dot and butterfly pictures, that he has produced, or rather has had produced, in multiples. Hirst’s more considered painting skills were on display at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009 in an exhibition called “No Love Lost: Blue Paintings” where they were universally panned. The critical consensus is that Hirst is a conceptualist and P.T. Barnum-style impresario but no great shakes with brush in hand. Nevertheless, although “Beautiful Explosion of Vanity Painting, with Butterflies” sold for nearly $2 million in 2007 at the height of the Hirst boom, a fellow work, “Beautiful Love Strummerville with Beautiful Butterflies,” still fetched $675,000 late last year: the market for his most meretricious productions may have settled but it is not negligible. Even now, some people want a signpost Hirst and are happy to pay heavily for it. His latest paintings, “Colour Space,” Op Art pastiches that are variations on his dot paintings, are due to be unveiled in March. They represent, perhaps, a tacit admission from the artist that tweaking a tried and tested formula is likely to be more remunerative than taking financial and artistic risks by breaking new ground.
There are two artists in particular where the identifiability of the work aligns perfectly with their highest prices: Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeois. Gormley has passed the $1 million mark six times and five of those instances were for variations of his best-known work, “The Angel of the North” — the towering Cor-Ten steelwinged figure that looms over the motorway near the northeastern Britishtown of Gateshead (the exception is “Aggregate,” a standing figure composed of hundreds of small square and rectangular blocks, which fetched $2 million in 2014 against an upper estimate of about $300,000). Gormley’s auction record of $6.7 million was made last year with “A Case for an Angel I”: the work dates from 1989 and marks the first instance of the artist’s treatment of the theme. Made from a lead sheet hand-beaten around a plaster cast of Gormley’s body, it has wings attached that give it an 8.5-meter span. The piece was bought by Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese collector who made such a splash last year when he paid $110 million for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting “Untitled.” Gormley’s other $1 million plus prices were all for “Angel of the North” maquettes or variations.
The same effect is visible in the prices paid for works by Bourgeois. The artist had a famously long career, being born in 1911 and dying in 2010 at 99, and was equally well- known for the late flowering of her critical reputation. Although she was a selling artist by the 1940s she really only came to prominence, in sales terms at least, with the new millennium. Her 93 most expensive pieces were all bought from 2002 onward and of her 13 most expensive works, 12 deal with the motif that has become indelibly associated with her, the spider. Bourgeois first drew spiders in 1947 but didn’t make a sculpture of them until 1994. She then made a series of spider works throughout the 1990s culminating in “Maman,” the giant arachnid that was put in situ to mark the opening of Tate Modern in London in 2000. Despite the fact that much of her work consists of soft sculptures and abstract organic forms, it is the spiders that have lodged in public consciousness. One “Spider,” from the edition of six cast in 1996-97, fetched $28 million in 2015. Bourgeois has topped $1 million 47 times at auction but only her spiders have passed $6 million (seven times). The great majority of her most expensive work has sold for less than $100,000. The message is clear: if you are going to pay big money for a Bourgeois then it has to be for one of her eight-legged insects.
Although Picasso died only in 1973 and Warhol in 1987 there is a sense that some of the art historical dust has settled on them in the way that it hasn’t yet for Bourgeois or for the still practicing Gormley and Hirst. The sifting by the market concludes that Picasso and Warhol were artists of huge importance while, at this stage, Bourgeois, Gormley and Hirst have produced some art of importance. The latter trio might yet be upgraded but that is far from certain and until it happens collectors clearly feel more comfortable associating themselves with the most famous products of their respective brands than with the riskier elements of their output that might well prove to be nothing more than footnotes to the art of our time.
— The article appears in the February 2018 edition of Art+Auction.