RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More than a billion dollars in art is expected to change hands this month, as Sotheby's and Christie's hold their spring auctions. One item, a painting by Picasso, sold last week for $95 million. It was the second highest priced ever paid for a work of art. This had NPR's Kitty Eisele wondering about the value of a work of art in her own family.

KITTY EISELE reporting:

I took my parents to a museum recently and had this jaw dropping conversation at lunch. Maybe it's time to sell the Warhol, my dad said, you know the soup can he signed for me; it's probably worth some money by now.

Wait a minute, the Warhol? The soup can? He signed it? My parents had an actual can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup signed by Andy Warhol, with the soup still inside.

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EISELE: The story goes that my parents were at a party in the 1970s and Andy Warhol was one of the guests. My dad asked the host if they had any Campbell's soup. They did. So Warhol sat down, autographed the can and decorated it with doodles that looked like hotdogs or maybe lips. Now, my parents wondered if they should try to sell it on eBay. But what was it worth? I thought it deserved a little investigation.

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EISELE: The first hurdle was getting anyone in the museum world to talk to me. They wanted to know about things like provenance, and had this item been in a major collection. No. It had been in a coat closet for almost three decades. And why would anyone keep a can of soup for that long unless Andy Warhol had signed it. The web turned out to be a friendlier place to do research, and I soon found an artist in Vancouver who also had a Warhol-signed soup can.

Mr. DANIEL LASKARIN (Artist, Vancouver, B.C.): It was Tomato.

EISELE: That's Daniel Laskarin, who went on to tell me that my family treasure was probably more like a time bomb. For years, his Warhol had a prominent place in his studio, until one day something strange happened.

Mr. LASKARIN: It was starting to swell up, which meant it was going to burst, which meant problems.

EISELE: Apparently, over time, tomato acid can eat through metal, and when the contents are exposed to air, well, the result is a pop art mess.

Mr. LASKARIN: So Andy Warhol had by this time died. And I thought that it was kind of interesting to have this analogy between Warhol dying and his soup can blowing up. So I built a kind of Fatrine(ph) for it that encased it and allowed it carry on its own process of decomposition, as Warhol was, I suppose himself, doing at the same time.

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EISELE: My next thought was that maybe I needed an expert who could tell me how to protect this family treasure.

Unidentified Woman: Hi. Thanks for calling the Campbell's Soup Company.

EISELE: The Campbell's Soup people put me through to their director of toxicology, a very patient man named George de Naif.

Mr. GEORGE DE NAIF (Director of Toxicology, Campbell's Soup Company): Well, the shelf life of our soup cans is two years, and for the most part we don't keep them beyond that period of time.

EISELE: Well, I'm actually looking here at a photo of a can of soup that had been on the shelf for 20 years and exploded. It looks kind of burned.

Mr. DE NAIF: That would be, I would think, a very rare experience. And the only way that's going to happen is if something happens to the can. It falls on the floor and dents and a puncture occurs.

EISELE: What about a bus ride from Washington to New York?

Mr. DE NAIF: I would have no concern about that.

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EISELE: Time for a road trip. The can and I would travel to New York for an official appraisal. But there was one last call to make, to a man I thought would really understand the value of a cultural icon.

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor and Artist): Hi, this is Dennis Hopper.

EISELE: Yes. That Dennis Hopper. He is an artist as well as an actor, and he may have been the first person ever to pay for a painting of a can of soup. It happened in 1962 when Warhol showed his first soup can paintings at a gallery in Los Angeles.

Mr. HOPPER: I went into his gallery one day and all of the critics were talking about the return to reality out of abstract expressionists. And I said, wow, that's one of Andy's soup cans; and he said, yeah, it's the first one. And I said, how much is that? And he said, $75.00, and I thought, wow, what a bargain. So I bought it.

EISELE: Hopper said no one liked the painting, not his agent, not his wife, who eventually got it in a divorce and sold it in 1985.

Unidentified Auctioneer: Lot Number 139 now, the Andy Warhol, $15,000 for it.

EISELE: That is Hopper's soup can painting on the block. It sold for $42,000. Now, 21 years later, a similar painting is up for sale at Christie's, and it's expected to fetch between 10 and 15 million dollars. So what was our soup can signed by the artist actually worth? Christie's agreed to take a look.

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EISELE: I was ushered into a hushed room at Christie's American headquarters in Rockefeller Center. The company's Deputy Chairman, Brett Gorvy, met me there. In his hands was the actual Andy Warhol painting, a poster-sized rendering of a can of Pepper Pot Soup, with its red and gold label shredded. It was breathtaking. My soup can suddenly seemed a little diminished.

I'm going to take my version of the soup can out of the bag very carefully, in bubble wrap.

Mr. BRETT GORVY (Deputy Chairman, Christie's): Wow. Cream of Mushroom, my favorite.

EISELE: Now, do you need to wear gloves while you handle this?

Mr. GORVY: I'm not going to handle it. I think I'm going to let you handle it. It's such a precious object. What's fantastic about it is the signature. It has that sense of the moment. The fact that it actually looks like a ‘60s piece, as well, and it's got all of the coloring that you associate with these adds to its attraction.

EISELE: Attractive, yes, valuable, no. It turns out that Warhol signed lots of soup cans often as a publicity stunt for galleries. He didn't intend them to be art, even ours with its quirky sketches.

Mr. GORVY: So what you really have here is a signature of Warhol. The fact that it's actually on a soup can makes it cool.

EISELE: I was beginning to get the message. Gorvy was letting me down gently.

Mr. GORVY: It's difficult to… It's difficult to put an actual price on something which is more a memory. And probably it's better to keep it in the family than sell it in a way, just really, for its autograph.

EISELE: So what was the can really worth? Depending on the buyer, we might get a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. I was disappointed but sort of relieved. It would be hard to let it go. Instead, I'm thinking of borrowing it on extended loan from my parents and displaying it on my bookshelf. I can take bids on its eventual demise and call it an art happening of its own.

(Soundbite of Campbell's Soup Commercial)

Unidentified Man: Here is the tomato surprise.

Group: (Singing) Umm, Umm, good. It's so good. Umm, Umm, good. It's so good. That's what Campbell's soups are, umm, umm, good.

Unidentified Man: Campbell's Tomato Soup gives you a bushel of fresh…

MONTAGNE: NPR's, Kitty Eisele. And hey, we've got several of Warhol soup cans virtually at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, with Steve Inskeep in Baghdad. I'm Renee Montagne here in Los Angeles.

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