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In a live-streamed talk held on Wednesday, Lévy Gorvy representatives gathered to address the impact of the coronavirus on the art market. Looking to the past for answers on how to adapt to the current economic volatility, Brett Gorvy reminisced on the auction moment that reinvigorated the art market after the shock of the 2008 financial crisis.
In a Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Evening sale held in November 2009, a year after financial and art markets seized, Andy Warhol’s colossal silkscreen on canvas, 200 One Dollar Bills, sold for a stunning price of $43.8 million, more than five times its pre-sale low estimate of $8 million.
The painting was well known in collecting circles having been auctioned for $383k in the 1986 sale of Robert Scull’s estate. For 26 years after that sale, the work was owned by noted UK collector, Pauline Karpidas. Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer had convinced Karpidas not only that the market was stronger than many believed at the time but that putting an attractively low estimate on the work would bring out the bidders.
Meyer was right. The opening bid quickly doubled from $6 million to $12 million with sparring in the room before an anonymous telephone bidder hit the $39m final price. With buyer’s premium, the work made nearly $44m, a price many would consider quite a deal still today.
The Warhol was the top-selling lot in the conservatively estimated contemporary art evening sale that ultimately brought in $134.5 million, which far surpassed its pre-sale estimate of $67.9-97.7 million.
The sale was a moment that re-established stability in the art market after a period of uncertainty. As the economic impact of the coronavirus continues to worsen and public auctions remain closed, the moment of the market’s re-opening presumably this summer or next Fall will be a test similar to the one held after the last decade’s crisis.
In a conference call also held on Wednesday with a group of Christie’s senior executives which included the company’s CEO, Guillaume Cerutti; Americas Chairman, Marc Porter and Global President Jussi Pylkkänen, among others—the group addressed the current appetites among their top clients. Porter noted that raising capital is not where clients’ needs currently lie. The general consensus among the executive leadership was that the most established collectors continue to view the crisis as a potential opportunity where they might have leverage. Those liquid enough to buy will likely benefit from this moment. But sellers, especially of high quality material, remain scarce. The industry is unanimous in seeing estate material as the primary driver of supply for the foreseeable future.
Much as changed between 2009 and today in the art market. A generation of collectors who came of age before the market boom are now reaching advanced ages. Also maturing are artists’ markets that will have some bearing on the next phase of auction sales. Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills was, in many ways, ideal to its moment. The work was a collector’s piece. And Warhol was still in the middle of his nearly two-decade run as the driver of the top of the Contemporary art market.
The Warhol piece had a specific alchemy that, as Gorvy remembers, attracted buyers from all corners of the globe including established collectors from Russia, Taipei, Hong Kong and America, who had stopped buying after the stock market crash of 2008. At seven-and-a-half-feet-wide the work comes from Warhol’s early period in the 1960s, when he began reproducing images of the American currency through various media. In a dead-pan display of consecutively splayed of black printed bills, the face of American political authority repeats in register. The work embodies a ruthless Warholian attention to the intersection of cultural icons and commodity fetish and epitomizes the less-celebrated segment of Warholia one might call dark pop. The work was completed one year before his similar 1963 Silver Car Crash from the seminal Death and Disasters series, which holds Warhol’s current auction record, selling at Sotheby’s in November 2013 $105 million.
One of several cash-image works done in the large-scale format, 200 One Dollar Bills is said be one of the two largest of the ten. Another, the 1962 192 One Dollar Bills featuring a vertical format, on extended loan to the Stadtisches Museum in Abteiberg from the collection of Berlin art collector, Dr. Erich Marx.