Confidence Colors Contemporary Art Market, With Record Prices Set

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol

The market for contemporary art is rebounding, with stellar results achieved at the Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction. The sale Wednesday night set several price records, including one for an Andy Warhol work titled Self-Portrait, which sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $32.6 million (including the buyer's premium).

The sale set a new record for a Warhol self-portrait at auction. The piece was previously owned by fashion designer and film director, Tom Ford.

The Sotheby's sale reflects a renewed confidence in the contemporary art market. After reaching a low point in November, 2008, the U.S. and European contemporary art markets have strengthened significantly, according to London-based art market research firm ArtTactic. The contemporary art market's confidence has returned to autumn, 2007, levels, says ArtTactic.

Warhol Piece a "Smart Buy"

Fifty lots (out of a total of 53) sold in the Sotheby's contemporary art sale last night for a total of $190 million, which exceeded the estimate's high end.

"We're thrilled with the overall result we achieved, which was our best since spring, 2008," says Alex Rotter, the head of Sotheby's contemporary art department in New York.

At least six bidders competed for Warhol's Self Portrait, an acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas work that was created in 1986. The large iconic and rare artwork, which measures 108" by 108", is from Warhol's final series of Self Portraits -- widely acknowledged as the most important of his career. The sale estimate was $10 million to $15 million.

"This Warhol will be seen as a very smart buy in the future," says Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art and the evening's auctioneer. "There are only six in the world like this one, which is the largest size Warhol ever made of these paintings. Three of the others are in museums and can never been sold. At the end of the day, there are only three in private hands, including this one, so it's very limited."

Other Warhol works achieved strong prices at the sale, including Four Flowers which sold for $7.6 million, above the estimate ($5 million to $7 million), and Statue of Liberty, which went for $4.3 million (estimate: $2.5 million to $3.5 million).

Museums Priced Out

Additional lots achieving record results last night include Cold Mountain I (Path), the most important work by Brice Marden ever to appear at auction. It sold for $9.6 million (including the buyer's premium), setting a new record for the artist at auction (its estimate was $10 million to $15 million).

"Last night was a global community hungry to buy icons of contemporary art," says Meyer. "That's why we saw bidding from every corner of the world."

There's a downside to the record prices being achieved by contemporary artists, according to Thomas Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum. "Museums are being priced out of the market and have been so for the last ten years," says Sokolowski. "It means that my museum, or even the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can't afford to buy any work of this price range."

Originally published