This spring, auction houses across the world alchemically turned Andy Warhol’s art into currency. One of his 1963 paintings of Liz Taylor sold for $27 million. A self-portrait from the same period—the first he ever made—went for $38.44 million. At the same auction, during which eight Warhols moved in all, a less desirable later self-portrait, from 1986, was gaveled off for $27.52 million. It was public theater, investment banking, and brothel rolled into one. Andy was in the news. Again. But his renown notwithstanding, one does wonder: Why such market-mania for Warhol? Why not Rothko, Newman, Nauman, or Judd? Why not Rosenquist, Kusama, Hesse, or any other first-rate big name?
Part of the reason is simple supply: Unlike many other modern masters, Andy was crazily prolific. One family of megacollectors, the Mugrabis, own about 800 pieces. The Warhol Foundation, which retains more of his individual works than anyone else, periodically raises funds by selling some of his pieces. (These entities function almost as a cartel, an Andy opec, exerting a certain amount of price control.)
This all means there are enough works available for a herd mentality to take hold, as it certainly has. With Warhol, the in-crowd is all-in. Paying inflated sums for his instantly recognizable work is proof that you’ve got good taste. Or rather, the right taste at no risk to social standing—or bottom line. You buy these because other people you know buy them and you think they’ll make you look like you know about art and investing. After all, when those other people buy them, the prices keep going up. It’s wealth 101: Money prefers going where other money already is. As Sarah Thornton pointed out on an Economist blog last week, auction houses now take what are called “irrevocable bids” on these artworks before the sales begin, effectively preselling them.
Economics aside, though: What does Andy mean to these people? Warhol once said, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings.” Okay, let’s. Warhol’s work is easy to like, especially now that it seems—at first glance, anyway—less strange than it did when it was created. Much of it is large, shiny, and brightly colored; Warhol’s smudged, skidding silk-screens make his images pop. There are those clashing electric colors that no one ever put together before—it’s as though he discovered a new note on the saxophone. There is also Warhol the man, who still strikes many as a strange swish outlaw. That gives his work an edginess and borderline-risqué feeling; Rothko, by comparison, is more about gravitas and suicide. Collecting Warhol seems naughty but not really obnoxious. Hedge-funders and industry titans see themselves in him: the leader of a factory; the workaholic who empowers others to make things possible; the one who collects and hoards, who turns junk into art.
Warhol, a collector himself, would revel in the speculation, spin, and trophy-hunting that now accompanies the buying and selling of his work. He loved making money, and he loved making the moneybags dance for him. He loved shopping, celebrating celebrity, and being original by being unoriginal. He also condoned acting out; that’s what is going on here too, of course. Someday, when fashions change and the Warhol bubble deflates, some of these same people will wonder why they let themselves get caught up in such a ridiculous business. In the meantime, those with the means would do well to recall Warhol’s own words before raising that auction paddle aloft. “Good business,” he said, “is the best art.”