This look at the history Andy Warhol’s 40 x 40 inch Marilyns is available AMMpro subscribers. First time monthly subscribers get a 30-day grace period. Curious readers are welcome to subscribe to the monthly option and cancel before being billed.
It came out quietly on Christmas Eve when Josh Baer’s Baerfaxt subscription email commented on rumors circulating in the art market that the financier Kenneth Griffin had bought Andy Warhol’s Orange Marilyn (1964) for, again, a rumored $250m.
Baer isn’t the only one to have been talking about a sale. And, if you can believe it, some think the price may be too cheap. Why?
To answer that, it’s worth taking a look at Orange Marilyn‘s history in the market. The painting’s previous sale in 1998 was a significant event. You could even say that the Sotheby’s auction launched the current Contemporary art market.
Beyond the orange Marilyn, the other four works in the 40-by-40 inch Marilyn series act as a tracer in the rapid fire history of accelerating of art prices over the 30 years since the artist’s death. But before we detail the series and its sales history, let’s start by saying the $450m paid for Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi has put the buyers and sellers at the very top of the market in another mood of quiet doubt about what an incomparable work of art might be worth.
We should also add the caveat that although story of the Griffin purchase is coming from several directions, Tobias Meyer, the Newhouse family’s appointed agent to disburse Si’s art collection, isn’t responding to queries about the sale. So there’s still some non-trivial chance that this private sale has not taken place or did not clear at $250m.
For argument’s sake, let’s say the Newhouses’ still own Orange Marilyn. How should we value it in 2018?
As most know, the work is one of five 40 x 40 inch Marilyns that Andy Warhol made in 1964 in Light Blue, Sage Blue, Turquoise, Red and Orange. Four of the five works gained some extra notoriety when Dorothy Prodber saw them stacked against the wall at Warhol’s Factory. Prodber asked Warhol if she could shoot the works which the artist naturally assumed meant her taking a photograph of them. Inexplicably, she proceeded to pull out a revolver and shot a hole in all four works. They subsequently became known as the Shot Marilyns (the turquoise was spared) but the works don’t seem to betray evidence of their repair.
At the time, Leo Castelli was representing Warhol. He sold the first of the works, the orange one, to Leon Kraushar, a preternatural collector who bought Wesselmann, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg as the Pop! artists were emerging.
Ivan Karp, who was responsible for Warhol being in the Castelli stable, says Kraushar was “a very high strung guy,” but Warhol’s celebrity series seemed to soothe him. Richard Polsky claimed that in 1963 Kraushar bought three portraits—one of Marilyn, Liz and Jackie in orange, pea green and red—that he hung in his bedroom (as you can see in the photograph from Life magazine, above.)
Surely that must have been 1964 after the works were made. More to the point, according to Polsky, Kraushar paid $1800 for each of his Warhols straight from Castelli. Three years later, a very young Peter Brant bought his second Andy Warhol painting with money from his grandfather. The first had been a relatively modest Campbell’s soup can painting. But Brant was hooked. He went back to buy one of the two blue works for $5000 at a time, Brant says, a Cadillac cost $3500.
That same year, Leon Kraushar’s Type A-ness caused him to have a heart attack. It killed the collector at 54 years of age. Kraushar’s widow allowed the German collector Karl Stroher to have his pick of her husband’s Pop! treasures for $600,000. Polsky estimates the three celebrity portraits were assigned values of $25,000 each in the deal. But that’s really a guess.
The fact that Brant had paid a fifth of what Stroher paid in the same year may be a comment on Polsky’s appraisal ability; it could be a sign that buying primary works is always cheaper; or, it could be recognition that the well-known Kraushar’s provenance might have added real value; there’s even the chance being able to buy the set, along with Jackie and Liz, made the works worth more together than apart.
Then, again, it could just be that orange is only second to red in the pantheon of market-moving colors.
Twenty-two years later, Shot Red Marilyn came to auction in the midst of an art market explosion. In 1989 at Christie’s, a Japanese buyer named Masao Wanibuchi paid a stunning $4.01m for the Warhol. It was a peak point in the market driven by the bubble in Japanese asset prices. Five years later, when Wanibuchi was forced to puke up the painting, the market held its collective breath as Philippe Niarchos paid $3.6m to get the recent buyer out of the trade.
Oddly, the second sale at a 10% discount seemed to have more of an impact on the market than first. The $3.6m told the market, then in the depths of a Western recession, that a Warhol could keep its value. “It’s the recognition we were waiting for,” said Doris Ammann told the New York Times’s Carol Vogel.
Somewhere along the way, Doris Ammann or her dealer brother Thomas, seems to have picked up the other blue Marilyn making the recognition all the more meaningful to her.
Building on the floor Niarchos had built into the Warhol market, Stroher’s estate put Orange Marilyn up for sale in 1998. Nine years earlier, shortly after his death, the red Jackie hit the market along with many of Stroher’s other Pop! pieces. In 1998, thirty years after it Stroher had bought it for $25,000, Sotheby’s priced Orange Marilyn with little market information to go on. Considering the two sales of the red painting had hovered around the $4m mark, Sotheby’s made a bold move and made that the low estimate.
Tobias Meyer, who ran the Contemporary department at the time, remained confident even if the bidders would be required to rise above the previous hammer prices to meet the low estimate. Sniffing the gossip in the wind at the time, Carol Vogel believed that three museums (MoMA, the Tate and the Warhol Museum) were all after the picture. Steve Wynn, the casino boss, and Si Newhouse, the head of Conde Nast, were also said to be seriously in the hunt.
In the end, the institutions probably bowed out early. Two bidders pursued the painting far above the estimate range until the winner finally paid $17.3m or roughly four times what the red work had made at the height of the last market.
In 1998, the art market was still believed to be hung over from the binging of the eighties and the rise of Contemporary art would take another nine years to gather enough momentum to rival the “blue chip” Impressionist and Modern field. Nevertheless, Warhol and Orange Marilyn had set a new benchmark for what a Contemporary work of art could achieve at auction.
Eventually the world learned that Newhouse was the buyer of the orange Marilyn. His stellar collection burnished the work as much as the price elevated his stature among buyers. The five 40-by-40 Marilyns were now playing off each other. Each of the owners, Niarchos, Brant, Ammann, Newhouse and Stefan Edlis, who had picked up the turquoise Marilyn somewhere along the way, had a strong presence in the Contemporary art market.
Cracking that club has a value all its own. And though Stefan Edlis would eventually make an enormous donation of Contemporary work to the Art Institute of Chicago (an institution Griffin has loaned his trophy works to,) the collector was persuaded to sell Turquoise Marilyn to Steven Cohen (hardly an unknown quantity in this market himself) for $80m in 2007.
Again, at the time the price seemed to get out ahead of the market.
With that we have a pretty good array of prices to extrapolate from. In retrospect, Brant and Niarchos are looking very smart. Even Newhouse’s aggressive move now looks somewhat tame. Need it even be said that Cohen too now looks like he’s as good at trading art as he is at trading financial instruments?
Let’s not even use the prices from the 60s to frame our thinking about the current value of Orange Marilyn.
In 1989, a 40 x 40 Marilyn was worth $4m give or take depending on your choice of color. Nine years later, that work had appreciated four fold to $17.3m. Another nine years on, a 40-by-40 Marilyn changed hands for another four-fold increase (with some cash thrown in on top as a sweetner.)
By that logic, and without even trying to do some hedonistic calculations based upon the Leonardo sale, it would not be totally unreasonable to hear that Orange Marilyn had been sold for $320m (four times the $80m Cohen paid) or more.
Once you’re at that level in this environment, when Tobias Meyer is fielding inquiries about a work everyone knows needs to be sold, it isn’t hard to imagine someone making an even higher offer. With Edlis swapped out for Cohen, the four other works (presuming the dealer Ammann never sold) are all still in very prestigious hands. (Curiously, not one is in a museum.) Buying into this particular club requires paying a premium. And there’s every reason to believe a handful of extremely wealthy buyers would have this work on fantasy list.
The auction market for Warhol may not be the best gauge of demand for a work like this. Nonetheless, we have to acknowledge that It has cooled in a significant way. That might have you thinking a slower rate of appreciation over these last 10 years is more appropriate which would justify the rumored $250m price.
Paying $250m for any work of art is a bold and significant act. But if Griffin did buy it for $250m, that would be a three times the 2007 sale instead of the 4x moves of the previous two eras suggesting either the Warhol market is slowing its rate of change or the overall trophy art market is slowing the pace of appreciation.
Whatever the answer is, like the second sale of the Red Marilyn, we won’t really know how to measure this valuation until we see within the next decade a confirming sale of one of the other works.