Andy Warhol’s fame has already lasted longer than 15 minutes, to paraphrase his famous quote about the fleeting nature of celebrity culture. Since his death in 1987, interest in his work and its value to collectors has only continued to rise. In recent years, Warhol has consistently ranked among the Top 10-selling artists at major auction houses.
In many ways, his success was a fairy tale of mid-century America come true. Born Andrej Varchola to Eastern European parents in 1928, Warhol grew up a sickly child in the gritty industrial confines of Pittsburgh but found his escape by dreaming of art and stardom. As a child he collected pictures of movie stars, and upon graduating from high school, he enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in graphic design. In 1949, he moved to the glittering city that had become the world capital of culture – New York – and pursued a successful career as a commercial artist. During the 1950s, he executed magazine illustrations, album covers and advertisements for everything from Van Heusen shirts to dishwashers and was already beginning to show his work at the Bodley Gallery.
For Warhol, the line between fine art and commercial art was never distinct. He utilized the same technologies for both, and his interests tended toward capturing images from the consumer-driven, marketing-lead society of post-World War II America. His famous Campbell Soup can series can be interpreted as a 20th century still-life, with a product from the supermarket shelves taking the place of the fresh fruit or a jug of wine favored by earlier generations of painters.
His imagery is a timeline of postwar 20th century America. Product labels of mass-produced consumer goods seen in every grocery store, cultural icons of the decades including Marilyn Monroe, already gone when Warhol borrowed her famous face and reproduced it in dozens of cartoon-colored prints, Queen Elizabeth with tiara and frown and Jackie Kennedy in that fitted pink suit worn on another day that went down in infamy. Reflecting the evening news, there was Chairman Mao in technicolor, Lenin in red and Che Guevara in black, among others.
For Warhol, art and business were separated only by a hyphen. In his 1975 book, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B & Back Again,” the artist speculated that art was a business, and that business was art. He later added, “Good business was the best art.”
More than two decades after his death, Warhol’s art is its own brand and business is booming.
In 1987, The Andy Warhol Foundation For the Visual Arts [www.warholfoundation.org] was established in accordance with the artists’s will. While its mission is the advancement of the visual arts, as with most artist-endowed foundations, it also possesses all rights and ownership of the artist’s body of work. And that translates to licensing. For a business looking for an identity to package their product, you could use, say, Warhol’s bright and color-blocked floral design for a line of perfume. Or patterns for china and glassware. Licensing Andy Warhol’s work promotes his legacy and also creates revenue for the Foundation in keeping with its mission.
What better place for Warhol’s art work than on consumer products – and this time around consumer goods developed long after his death? In keeping with his legacy and the city where he found fame, the fragrance group Bond, headquartered in New York, launched a perfume collection in homage to New York and used the Warhol brand to market and promote the line. The marketing, which includes “Finally Making Scents of New York,” has Warhol’s design signatures wrapped around perfume bottles and colognes, shouting Big Apple at every angle.
In October, the trendy Nars Cosmetics Company launched a limited-edition, 29-piece makeup line with the Andy Warhol dynamic in mind. Inspired by several of the artist’s celebrity muses like “’80s pop queen” Debbie Harry, whose face is part of the packaging, the line includes ever-witty Andy aphorisms such as the cleverly named “15 minutes” for a bottle of nail color.
New York fashion designer and first lady of the wrap dress, Diane Von Furstenberg, slapped Warhol’s flower motif on her 2008 Resort collection.
High-end collectors who aren’t bothering with perfume bottles are paying higher and higher prices for the same images on paper or canvas. Prices for his silkscreen editions have gone through the roof, with hammer prices stirring as much excitement as the closing bell on a good day on Wall Street. An art portfolio with a Warhol print or two can be as thrilling as any blue chip stock these days.
Case in point: I recently worked with a client who had purchased a Warhol silkscreen in the mid-1970s from a prominent local dealer with a few Warhols in his inventory. For $850 she got one image, Mao, a 36-by-36-inch heavily screened print from the suite of 10 Maos that were released in 1972. Ten years later, she had it appraised for $5,500. Last month, its value was estimated around $50,000.
Smaller, hand-colored prints from Warhol’s ad agency days are value-priced for the collector on a budget. “In the Bottom of My Garden” (1956), a series of hand-colored off-set lithos, sell individually from around $800 to $3,000. The full set can fetch as high as $23,000.
As more companies use Warhol imagery today for their product packaging, awareness of Warhol has recirculated and interest in owning an original Warhol has become increasingly desirable. Inquiries from collectors looking to purchase, as well as collectors looking to sell into the market, is active. And as companies continue to market new products using the now decades old Warhol classic images, everything that is old is new again.
Warhol himself perceived this adage by saying, “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people do.”
The product may change but the picture remains the same.
Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in
Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.