An Investment In Warhol May Hold Its Value

A painting by the late pop artist Andy Warhol of 200 $1 bills, recently sold for $44 million. That's one of the highest prices ever paid for one of his paintings. Art writer Sarah Thornton has been exploring why works by Warhol maintain such high prices — his continued fame is one reason. She talks to Steve Inskeep about her article in The Economist.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There is one market that still seems relatively strong. It's the market for Andy Warhol paintings. The late pop artist once said, making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. Warhol knew something about that. A painting he made of 200 $1 bills recently sold for $44 million. It's one of the highest prices ever paid for one of his works.

Art writer Sarah Thornton has been exploring why works by Andy Warhol maintain such high prices even in tough economic times. She's writing about this for The Economist magazine.

Now how have Andy Warhol paintings maintained their value or even apparently increased their value even as, well, the economy has been tough the last couple of years, as you may have noticed?

Ms. SARAH THORNTON (The Economist): I think Warhol's prices have held steady because he is considered the most influential postwar artist. He forged the path of being a creative director who invented rather than expressed himself and was acutely aware of both the business and kind of media resonance of his art.

INSKEEP: During his lifetime, Warhol was very conscious of the commercial value of his paintings, wasn't he?

Ms. THORNTON: Absolutely, actually. He is, I think, one of the few artists of the period who had a business manager who was very actively selling work out of the studio, including attempting to get commissions for portraits.

INSKEEP: And we should say there's nothing wrong with this. If you're an artist you've got to make a living. The way you make a living is by selling your art. But still, he was just more open and more blatant than perhaps other artists might've been.

Ms. THORNTON: Well, I think commerce and media were actually part of the content of his work. So Elvis or Marilyn Monroe as subject matters are a fascination to him because he's interested in fame and ubiquity. That also impacted on how he handled himself outside of the studio. He was forever wanting to be covered in the media himself.

INSKEEP: I imagine he might be pleased to hear your report that one of his paintings sold for $100 million.

Ms. THORNTON: I am sure he is thrilled.

INSKEEP: Now, do people buy Andy Warhol paintings at that very high price as an investment, thinking it could go even further?

Ms. THORNTON: Absolutely. I mean, I don't think anyone spends over $5 million on anything without thinking of it as an investment. Nowadays, people are investing in art as transportable assets that can be seen as a hedge against currency fluctuations. You might hesitate about investing in a fixed property in a particular part of the U.S. because that asset is pinned to the dollar, whereas art is moveable and can be traded in any denomination.

INSKEEP: How much excitement does a Warhol generate when it comes up for auction?

Ms. THORNTON: Well, you know, every season sees a dozen or so Warhols and he made about 10,000 works in his lifetime so they're not all the same. And subject matter tends to define what's most coveted. That subject matter then is kind of pinned on to the quality of the screen, the vibrancy of the color, the size of the painting as well as rarity and date.

INSKEEP: I wonder if it is the fame that Warhol generated for himself that underlies the value of the painting now? Because if you're buying this painting as an investment, as an asset, that you want to at least hold its value of not increasing value over several years, you want to make sure the artist is still going to be famous in five or 10 or 15 years and you can feel pretty confident that Warhol will be.

Ms. THORNTON: I think that's absolutely true. I think fame and the media is probably under researched as a topic in art history, and now that we have a global art market, the media can be even more important.

INSKEEP: So Warhol was right - fame feeds on itself.

Ms. THORNTON: He was. I mean if you look at reality television nowadays and look back to the films he made in the '60s, he was actually making a certain kind of reality TV.

INSKEEP: Sarah Thornton, thanks very much.

Ms. THORNTON: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: She's a writer for The Economist, and author of "Seven Days in the Art World."

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