This year’s spring auction season in New York was billed as a key test of the health of the art market, said DealBook in The New York Times – “an indication of whether top-quality trophies can continue to command high prices, no matter the instability of the world”. The “bellwether” work kicking off proceedings was Andy Warhol’s 1964 silk-screen of Marilyn Monroe, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, which sold for $195m – breaking records as both “the highest auction price ever for an American artist” and the most expensive 20th century work. That was taken as a good omen, amid the current “surfeit of blue-chip art”. As Philip Hoffman of advisory firm The Fine Art Group observed, “there’s been a huge amount held back for two years, and there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand from new clients”. He reckons Manhattan’s two-week auction marathon could raise $2bn.
The iconic Marilyn painting, one of a series of portraits Warhol made of the Hollywood star after her death in 1962, was sold “in just under four minutes”, said Waiyee Yip on Insider. Christie’s called it a tribute to Warhol’s “pervasive power”. The painting was bought by mega-dealer Larry Gagosian, who declined to say whether he was acting for himself or a client. But Asian bidding was notably “thin” throughout the sale, said Katya Kazakina on Artnet – “the Hong Kong salesroom was quiet when the Marilyn came up” and “Middle Eastern bidders didn’t seem to materialise either”.
“Stocks, bonds and crypto are in turmoil. But more tangible assets are on a roll,” said Lex in the FT. An old football shirt – “admittedly worn by Maradona when he scored the world’s most memorable goal” – recently fetched over £7m. Art, like gold, can claim a history as “a store of value”. Indeed, Sotheby’s Mei Moses Index suggests that “over the long term” it has beaten inflation. But big caveats apply. Paintings are illiquid assets, prone “to more subjective impulses than gold or even houses”. With borrowing increasingly funding purchases, the art market has also benefited from low interest rates. Warhol’s Blue Marilyn might look like “the perfect kitschy inflation hedge”. But appearances can be deceptive.