In 1962, when few people knew Andy Warhol's name, much less his future, Los Angeles' Ferus Gallery mounted an exhibition of 32 paintings of Campbell's soup cans. Not only did few takers come along at $100 apiece, but neighboring art dealer David Stuart was so amused by the image that he filled his gallery window with actual Campbell's soup cans selling at two for 39 cents.
Today, the 32 paintings are insured for $2.5 million, according to former Ferus Gallery director Irving Blum. Just last week, they were installed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on long-term loan.
Nobody planned it that way, but the National Gallery installation came only days after Warhol's unexpected death Feb. 22 following gallbladder surgery.
More deliberate, however, is the art market's response to the passing of a major artist into art history. In New York, Warhol's longtime dealer, Leo Castelli, and Warhol's own studio have frozen sales, at least for the time being. But other sellers were more eager, and Sotheby's auction house has been "absolutely inundated" with phone calls from people trying to peddle everything from paintings to signed dollar bills.
Some Los Angeles dealers, meanwhile, are doing brisk business in recent Warhols. In conjunction with the Martin Lawrence Galleries chain, Robertson Boulevard dealer Michael Kohn last December exhibited dozens of new Warhol silk-screen paintings of Campbell's soup boxes. Both Kohn and Martin Lawrence are already handling resales; a Campbell's soup box silk-screen (measuring 14 inches by 14 inches) sold for $7,000 as recently as December was resold soon after Warhol's death for $12,500.
"We're now paying on the open market three times what we were paying two weeks ago," says Martin Blinder, chairman of the Los Angeles-based gallery chain. "And I must say I'm happy to pay it when the (artwork) is available."
Consider the New York dealer who just called to offer Blinder a set of 10 "Mao" silk-screen prints for $25,000. The portfolio, depicting the late Chinese chairman Mao, was published in 1972 and, says Blinder, was selling at between $8,000 and $10,000 one month ago. If the portfolio turns out to be in good condition, Blinder adds, he expects to buy it, break it up and offer the individual prints at $4,000 to $5,000 each.
New York dealer Ronald Feldman, who collaborated with Warhol on many projects in recent years, reports similar demand. A print of Albert Einstein that might have been selling for $6,000 two weeks ago is now selling for $10,000 to $12,000, says Feldman, "and my whole problem is how to keep the prices within reason. Andy Warhol's prints, compared to those of artists like Jasper Johns or David Hockey, were low by comparison. They are now catching up. And I'm sure they will surpass those prices. On one simple fact--that Andy is not making any more. We can now see the whole market from beginning to end."
Nobody knew when Warhol was born, says Patterson Sims, associate curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art's permanent collection, "but we all know when he died (probably at the age of 57). In that act of dying, he definitively concluded this astonishing outpouring in both images and words and his insistent existential style. . . . He now becomes a sort of heroic figure of his generation."
Warhol's incessant marketing of his art, films and personage often made him as familiar to America's households as the famous people he painted, and the artist did little to discourage celebrityhood.
Warhol also left behind a sizable body of work. Castelli counts up portraits alone of more than 100 people, figuring Warhol's paintings must number in the thousands. A 1985 publication lists 364 different Warhol prints, generally in limited editions of 150 to 250 each, and several of the artist's most recently completed print series have yet to be distributed.
Major Warhol paintings, of course, are in a class by themselves, and potential sellers indicate they are waiting to see what happens in the marketplace. This is particularly true of Warhol's work before 1965, works that already command very high prices.
Warhol's "200 One Dollar Bills," painted in 1962, fetched $385,000 at a Sotheby's sale last fall in New York from the estate of pop art collector Robert Scull, and Sotheby's Los Angeles executive Barbara Pallenberg estimates that it could command $500,000 today. Saying an early '60s painting was sold privately to a New York collector for $1 million almost a year ago, dealer Feldman is predicting future sales in the millions.