Warhol works could garner $120 million

Decades after his death, the genius self-promoter is striking it rich like he always intended

"Coca-Cola (3)"
Andy Warhol/Christie's Images Ltd.

One of Andy Warhol’s most widely viewed masterpieces and one of his most reclusive are expected to garner as much as $120 million combined when they go on sale a day apart next month.

Produced in the 1960s by the man who pioneered Pop art, “Coca-Cola (3)” and “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” are being auctioned by rival auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, respectively.

Almost three decades after his death, the market for Andy Warhol’s work is thriving. Christie’s expects their November sale — also featuring a Jeff Koons ballon-dog sculpture and a Gerhard Richter — to be the largest by value the auction house has ever had.

Record sales of Warhol’s work are “indicative of his place in the pantheon of art history and the art market,” says Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown of Pittsburgh. “His artwork and dedication to building the Warhol brand are really coming full-circle now."

“Coca-Cola (3)” — a human-sized, black-and-white portrait of a Coca-Cola bottle — ranks among the most exhibited of Warhol’s works, with frequent appearances at almost every major Warhol exhibition. The painting has been owned by the same private collector for nearly two decades. 

Warhol was fascinated by consumer and celebrity culture. His most emblematic work depicts commercial symbols — from the iconic can of Campbell’s soup to the Coca-Cola bottle featured in the painting that Christie’s may sell for $40-60 million.

"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest," Warhol said. "All the cokes are the same, and all the cokes are good,” he said.

That aphorism does not ring true for Warhol’s art, which is out of reach for most consumers and garnered $380 million at auction last year — the most of any artist. Nine of his works sold for more than $10 million each.

“Andy is the bellwether of the market,” said Amy Cappellazzo, a chairman of Post-war and Contemporary Art for Christie’s, who said that Christie’s trades more Warhol than any other artist.

“Obviously to sell something after 20 years is not a rash decision,” Cappellazzo says about the Mugrabi family’s decision to let go of “Coca-Cola (3)." "People feel confident it’s a strong market, and the strength of the market brings out quality.”

Sotheby’s likewise managed to wrangle “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” an 8-by-13-foot silkscreen painting that depicts the aftermath of a car crash, out of the hands of a longtime collector who has owned the piece since 1988. It has only been viewed in public once in the past 26 years.

Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby's, describes the 1963 painting as "one of the definitive masterpieces of history painting."

Counter to the pervasive “starving artist” stereotype, Warhol always intended to be a commercial success.

“He very specifically constructed his brand identity,” Shiner said.

“As a commercial illustrator he quite literally was convincing consumers to buy a product,” he said, adding that “Coca-Cola (3)” appears as if it was cut down from a billboard.

Warhol, who coined popular phrases such as "15 minutes of fame," is renowned for his enduring relevance in American culture.

“Andy so brilliantly prefigured so many things about the world we live in today,” says Cappellazzo. “All of his quotes, his sense of celebrity, his ideas about consumer culture, these are all things that feel incredibly fresh today, but they were very new ideas, very radical when he was expounding on them.”

While the upcoming auctions could rank among Warhol's most lucrative sales of all time, neither will surpass his "Eight Elivises" silkscreen painting that sold for $100 million in a private sale in 2009.

With wire services

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