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The Warhol effect : Moving from connoisseurship to brand recognition

How the money men have changed the market

One artist’s work was everywhere at Art Basel/Miami Beach in December: Andy Warhol. Dozens of stands were showing everything from his early portraits to late silkscreens of sparkly diamond dust shoes.

A month earlier, at the New York auctions, an astonishing $100m was spent on Warhol. Since 1977, the price of his work has quadrupled, according to Artprice.com. “Prices have gone exponentially nuts,” says Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray gallery. So why has Warhol become today’s art superstar? The reasons have to do with supply, demand, new buyers in the market and new reasons for buying art.

Warhol is a universal brand name—one of the very few artists, like Picasso, who is as well known in the east as he is in the west. Like Picasso, Warhol was prolific, so there is a rich supply of instantly recognisable work. This has made him intensely appealing to new collectors who have grown up in a world of brand names and luxury goods. Many are hedge fund managers, Wall Street traders or entrepreneurs. Such buyers think in terms of investment and are used to consulting indices to make financial decisions. Because of the sheer number of Warhols sold—Artnet records 12,777 auction sales since the mid-1980s—his works are easy to value, a bit like stocks and shares. New buyers are also reassured by the presence in museums and major collections of pieces that are almost exactly comparable to the ones they are thinking of acquiring.

This is a radical change from yesterday’s collectors, who prized rarity and uniqueness in art and followed their own taste. Many of today’s buyers feel the need to “tick all the boxes” by buying “brand name” artists—and this then boosts prices for similar works. A common criticism is that they “buy with their ears, not with their eyes”, meaning that the name of the artist, and the growth in his or her prices, are the criteria, not the artistic quality of the work.

Warhol is not the only “brand name” artist, even if he is the most visible. Damien Hirst has established himself as the most recognisable living artist, with his spin and spot paintings. The series of spot paintings is long—estimates go into the upper hundreds—but this seems to be no disincentive, even though such works are now largely produced by Hirst’s 50 or so studio staff. But the sheer number of these paintings make them easy to value, while their very blandness seems to give them a broad appeal.

Hirst’s editions (see p46) are spreading his reputation more widely, while other artists such as Takashi Murakami or Jeff Koons are also following a “brand recognition” strategy. Koons has flooded the market with multiples in large editions (sometimes 3,000) while Murakami has designed $5,000 limited edition handbags for LVMH as well as producing t-shirts, key chains, mousepads and mobile phone cases. Warhol would have approved: and no doubt he would have done more of this himself, had he lived longer.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Warhol effect: how the money men have changed the market'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 176 January 2007