American Pop Art – the bubble is leaking air…

[21 Sep 2008]


The general price index for American Pop Art – the epicentre of art market speculation since the beginning of the decade – is showing signs of waning. Although Andy Warhol is the third most expensive post-war artist, along with Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko, auction sales of his works since the start of 2008 have been less successful… Could this be a first sign of market saturation?

Much publicised, the images created or reproduced by the Pop Artists instantly rendered their works « emblematic ». Some used highly recognisable symbols and icons from the contemporary America of their era, while others created works of art from standard consumer products carrying appeal for a very wide audience. Screenprints of the cult images were reproduced in large numbers and widely circulated. In theory, Pop Art should be available to a very broad public; however, the prices paid for its stars over recent years, particularly for the unique pieces, make the movement’s art inaccessible for most buyers. Having seen its price index acquire a massive 75% in 2007, the momentum appears to be waning this year: between January and September 2008 the movement’s index has lost 31%.

Over the last ten years, the individual price indices of Robert RAUSCHENBERG, Andy WARHOL, Roy LICHTENSTEIN, Claes Thure OLDENBURG and Tom WESSELMANN have gained between +320% and +540%!
The impressive figures generated by Warhol’s pieces are far in excess of the price records generated by the other artists from the Pop Art movement. In May 2007, Warhol’s Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) set his all-time record when it fetched 64 million dollars (more than 47 million euros) at Christie’s in New York. Already in 2006, 43 public sales of Warhol’s works generated sums above the 1 million dollars threshold, 8 more than the star of the market Pablo Picasso… In 2007, no less than 68 Warhol pieces from the 1960s and 80s fetched sums above the million-dollar line pushing his price index up 89% in just one year! Such inflation encourages speculation. For example in November 2007 the actor Hugh Grant sold a Warhol Liz (portrait of Elizabeth Taylor created in 1963) for $21m at Christie’s having paid only $3.25m just 6 years earlier and after a Liz from the same series fetched only $11.25m at Sotheby’s in 2005. Another example: Are you different? a small painting executed in 1985-1986 and acquired for the equivalent of €26,000 on 10 February 2005 in London fetched nearly 119,000 euros in June 2007.
After this exceptional year, Andy Warhol’s price index appears to be relaxing: –5% between January and September 2008, with growing signs of weakness in the market. For example, a version of Campbell’s Tomato Soup (red and black) fetched €682,000 in May 2007. Nine months later, an exactly identical piece sold for €66,000 less.

Jasper JOHNS is second on the Pop Art price record podium (but still $48.5m behind Warhol’s record…) with $15.5m for his Figure 4, a sale that also took place on 16 May 2007. During the same month a new record was also set for Rauschenberg when his mixed technique Photograph from 1959 fetched $9.5m (roughly €7m) at Sotheby’s NY. Two days after his death on 12 May 2008 his Overdrive (1963) set a new record at Sotheby’s. Aside from the genuinely exceptional pieces, buyers have shown a certain restraint with respect to Rauschenberg’s lesser quality works. For example, Blue Smile, Waterworks Series, a large mixed technique has already been bought in twice this year at Tajan; once with a low estimate of €80,000 and the second time with a threshold of €60,000.
Even if the market is showing some signs of contraction since the beginning of the year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire the major works of the key figures in the Pop Art movement. One solution for less wealthy buyers is to focus on the multiples; but the market for the multiples is also showing signs of deflation.

In principle, prints, lithographs and other good quality multiples can be acquired at affordable prices. Apart from Andy Warhol’s famous silk screen prints that usually fetch 5 or even 6-figure numbers, the multiples created by Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselman, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and James Rosenquist are often accessible for less than 5,000 euros. However, care should be taken because the price index for these works is also beginning to deflate. Over the first 9 months of 2008 the values of these products have contracted 20%. Examples of this price deflation are becoming increasingly widespread. Beautiful Bedroom Kate, a Tom Wesselmann screenprint produced in a series of 90 copies, fetched €16,000 – twice its estimated price – at Sotheby’s London in September 2007. The version sold last June in Germany generated went under the hammer for only €9,000. A similar story can be traced with Roy Lichtenstein’s multiples most of which have posted depreciation during 2008. His illustrious Brushstroke Still Life with Lamp – a screenprint with magna on aluminum panel inset in a wood frame and produced in 24 copies – sold for €342,000 in June 2007, then €502,000 in February 2008, and more recently fetched only €315,000 in July.

Aside from the observed value depreciation, buyer reticence has also been expressed by a sharp increase in the bought-in rate which has risen from 16% in 2007 to 37% for the first-half of 2008. And yet there has also been a 26% contraction in the number of lots presented for sale… a fact that should have provided support for this market where demand is focused on a limited supply. In short, these signs of market weakness on a segment that is normally very buoyant are fairly worrying for the other segments of the market that are traditionally the most speculative such as ‘current’ and ’emerging’ art.