Art market

Buyer of Warhol’s Green Car Crash revealed?

The large-scale “disaster painting” is the most expensive Andy Warhol ever to sell at auction

One of the acquisition mysteries of the late great boom—who bought the most expensive Andy Warhol ever to sell at auction?—appears to be resolved. The Art Newspaper understands that the buyer of Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, is the ultra-secretive Paris-based Philippe Niarchos.

The work was the cover lot of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale in May 2007—the season that marked the height of the New York art market.

The large-scale “disaster painting” produced high drama on the night. Christopher Burge, Christie’s chief auctioneer, opened the bidding at $17m, the highest sum ever previously paid for a Warhol (only six months earlier for Mao, 1972, which was bought by Hong-Kong-based Joseph Lau). Five bidders raised the price in million-dollar increments to $35m, then two suitors—one on the phone with Christie’s president Marc Porter, the other bidding through Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie’s Asia, volleyed $500,000 increments back and forth all the way up to $64m hammer ($71.7m with premium). It would have been a record price for any post-war work of art had not the “Rockefeller Rothko” sold for $72.8m the night before at Sotheby’s.

Mr Yeh, who generally bids on behalf of Pacific rim billionaires, won the lot. The official word after the sale was that, on this occasion, Mr Lau was not the purchaser but then all fell silent. About a year later, a rumour began to circulate that Mr Yeh had been used as a decoy, that the buyer was not Asian at all but a paranoid collector who wanted the inquisitive auction-room audience to be put off his scent.

Car crashes, along with race riots and electric chairs, tend to be acquired by devoted Warhol collectors. They are seen as too “tough” for new collectors who would rather start with a less macabre icon, like an “Orange Marilyn” or a “Turquoise Liz”. So expert opinion quickly ruled out a Russian or Middle Eastern buyer. Then a few months ago, a new rumour suggested that the picture—which had been consigned by a Swiss collector—had stayed in western Europe.

A friend of Warhol in the 1970s, Mr Niarchos has a habit of owning record-priced Warhols, even if he doesn’t always pay the record price. Shot Red Marilyn, 1964, sold in 1989 for $4.1m, three times the previous high for a Warhol painting. Mr Niarchos bought the work in 1994 for 10% less than the record. Whatever the case, Shot Red Marilyn held the record for nine years until Orange Marilyn, 1964, sold for $17.3m in May 1998.

Appeared in Art Basel Miami Beach, December 2008