Thursday, May 08, 2008

Art inflation: a $120 million Mao

$100 million dollars just doesn't go as far as it used to.

It seems today you can't even buy a modern masterpiece for that price without bumming an extra $20 mil or so from your friends...

Details from Bloomberg:

"An Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong may fetch an artist record of $120 million in a private sale in Hong Kong, Christie's International said.

Christie's is shipping Warhol's ``Mao,'' a silkscreen-on- canvas portrait more than 14-feet (4.3 meters) tall, to Hong Kong in late May for display at the city's main convention center, to allow potential buyers to view the work, said Ken Yeh, Christie's deputy chairman in Asia.

``That is a huge price to pay for a painting,'' said Elaine Holt, a Hong Kong-based curator at Opera Gallery, which specializes in Western artworks. ``Considering how well-known Warhol is in China and how wealthy some Chinese are, I wouldn't be surprised if a mainland collector bought the painting.''"

The sale of Warhol's Mao painting is amazing not only in terms of the price it is expected to bring, but also because of its expected (and recently expanded) pool of potential buyers.

That a collector from the Chinese mainland would pay this price, for a painting done by a Western artist, might have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

But given the painting's historical significance to Chinese collectors, and Asia's growing demand for Western contemporary art, it seems that the large Mao could have a willing Chinese buyer at this extraordinary price.

"Yeh said Asia's buyers now account for between 5 percent and 10 percent of Western postwar and contemporary art purchases, compared with 1 percent about five years ago.
``We have been cultivating our Asian buyers,'' said Yeh. ``There's now greater awareness and that helps demand.''
In November 2006, Hong Kong real estate magnate Joseph Lau paid $17.4 million for a smaller Warhol Mao portrait, a record at that time. Lau is chairman of Chinese Estates Holdings Ltd."

The road to $120 million was paved with the enormous sums recently paid out for other notable Warhol works.

"Warhol's 1963 ``Green Car Crash,'' an acid-green painting of a gruesome car wreck, sold in New York for an artist auction record of $71.7 million last May at Christie's. A Warhol portrait of Elvis Presley sold privately last year might have fetched more than $100 million, Yeh said in a phone interview from New York."

Now for a little price comparison. I was curious to know how current prices for Warhol's paintings compared to those achieved at auction in the past (say, 10, 20, 30 years ago).

So I reached for my nearby copy of The Andy Warhol Diaries (a fascinating record of prices, culture, lifestyle, and events in 1970s-1980s New York) to look for mention of past prices.

Searching with Amazon's online reader made finding the relevant entries much easier. Here are excerpts from two different entries in 1978 (five years after the Maos were painted) that offer a record of that period's auction prices for Warhol's work.

From the entry dated November 3, 1978:

"The Elvis at the Parke Bernet auction on Thursday went for $85,000. It was estimated to go between 100 to 125. The market's peaked for contemporary art. Todd Brassner said the Mao was about to go for $4,000 and he bid it up to $5,000 and then somebody else got it so he was thrilled."

From an earlier entry dated May 18, 1978:

"Bob had gone to the auction, and he called me at Diane's to say that a big Disaster went for $100,000 but a medium-sized Mao only went for $5,000. That sounded okay, so I told him we could still kick up our heels, I was relieved that the paintings sold okay."

I wonder how Andy would react to today's prices?

For more on the 2000s' global art boom, see:

"Art as Investment, Inflation Hedge" - Financial Sense Online.

"That booming art market" - Finance Trends Matter.

"Grantham and Faber on bubbles" - Finance Trends Matter.