Adventures with Warhol, 1986 self-portrait edition

May 5, 2011
Christie's auction of a big Andy Warhol self-portrait next week is a good place to start.

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If you want a great example of how the entire business of the art world is built on opacity and information asymmetry, the Christie’s auction of a big Andy Warhol self-portrait next week is a good place to start.

But first let’s go back to this time last year, when Sotheby’s was auctioning off a similar self-portrait: same size, different color, different wig. This information is high up on the official Sotheby’s page for the painting:

According to our research, there are only four other self-portraits from this series in this size. They are located in the following collections:

Self Portrait (Green), Fort Worth Art Museum
Self Portrait (Yellow), Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
Self Portrait (Blue), Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
Self Portrait (Red), Private Collection

Scroll all the way down to the bottom, however, and you find a loophole: “It is believed that only five of the 108 in. square format self-portraits depicting this exact image exist”.

My emphasis added — and it’s important, because the Christie’s red self-portrait is not the red self-portrait listed by Sotheby’s. Instead, it’s one of two slightly different self-portraits in the same size; the other, a green one, is in the Guggenheim.

Now see how Christie’s explains where the other paintings are. The release quotes Amy Cappellazzo, Christie‚Äôs co-head of post-war and contemporary art, as saying that “with all other examples in museums, it will be the last chance that buyers will have to bid on a work that shifted art history”. It then goes on to explain:

Warhol painted only seven large scale self-portraits in 1986. All the other versions are in museums or in foundations open to the public. A purple Self-Portrait was acquired in 2010 for $32.5 million for a private museum; other examples belong to Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Fort Worth Art Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

It’s very easy to simply assume, when Cappellazzo says that all the other paintings are in museums, that she means just that. But really it isn’t true. Of the seven big paintings, only four are in museums: one in the Guggenheim, one in Fort Worth, and two in Pittsburgh. There’s also the one that Christie’s is selling — and then there are two more: the purple one which Sotheby’s sold last year, and the red one which Sotheby’s said was in a private collection.

(And when Cappellazzo says that Warhol painted only seven large scale self-portraits in 1986, that’s not really true either: the Tate, for instance, has a huge 1986 self-portrait on show right now, which looks almost identical to the Christie’s one. It’s just not quite as huge: it’s 80 inches square, rather than 106 inches.)

So what does Christie’s mean when it says all the other paintings are in museums (or, later on, “in museums or in foundations open to the public”)? If they’re public, it should be easy enough to find out where they are, right?

Wrong. Ask Christie’s and they’ll suddenly go very quiet when you ask them for the location of the purple self-portrait and the other red one. (Although they will say that the other red one isn’t really red, it’s “coral”.) They obviously know where those paintings are, or think they know, but they’re not telling.

And so we enter the murky world of art-world rumor, which has it that the red one is owned by Peter Brant and the purple one by Bernard Arnault. Brant does have a foundation which is kindasorta open to the public — it’s by appointment only and you make appointments by email. I tried emailing them to ask if they have the red Warhol; they never replied. But I’m pretty sure that the foundation has never shown the Warhol and there’s certainly no public indication that the foundation even owns it.

As for Arnault, his Gehry-designed museum doesn’t even exist yet, and again, there’s zero public acknowledgment that he was the buyer of the purple Warhol last year.

When I asked art collector Adam Lindemann about all this, he replied succinctly that “they always say it’s the last one until someone else needs or wants to sell”. The fact is that auction houses are essentially art dealers and art dealers make their money by putting the best possible spin on the art that they’re selling and by knowing the secrets of who owns what. In this case, while Sotheby’s just said that the red self-portrait was in a “private collection”, Christie’s has upgraded it to being in a museum, or something tantamount to a museum. Which if you ask me is a bit of a stretch.

One of the weird things about conspicuous consumption in the art world is that for all that it’s conspicuous it isn’t public — outside the big public museums everybody tends to be very secretive indeed about what they own and what they don’t. That allows collectors to sell art quietly without admitting that they did so. And it also allows dealers and auction houses to make claims about where paintings are which are very difficult indeed to fact-check. Even when those claims are about “foundations open to the public”.


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