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What’s in a (celebrity) name? Millions if you’re buying or selling art

The salesroom at Christie's auction house is shown in this handout photo provided by Christie's Images Ltd November 13, 2013 during the auction of Francis Bacon's "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" in New York November 12, 2013. The oil on canvas triptych, painted in 1969, became the most expensive work of art ever sold when it fetched $142.4 million in one of the biggest auctions in history.

Handout/Reuters/Christie’s Ltd.

The cash value of celebrity in the art market can never be accurately reckoned, but its presence became more palpable when a New York dealer opined that the $34.2-million paid for a painting by Gerhard Richter last year may have been boosted by "as much as 20 per cent" by the fact that guitarist Eric Clapton was the seller. That comment by Christophe Van de Weghe came rocketing back to me when Sotheby's and Christie's recently posted much higher sums for works by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Jeff Koons.

The Richter price was a record for a living artist, but seems paltry compared with the amounts thrown down in New York auction rooms by unnamed billionaires. Warhol's Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) sold for $105-million (U.S.), a record for his work; Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud went for $142.4-million, the most ever paid at an art auction; and Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) fetched $58.4-million, the highest yet paid for a piece by a living artist.

If celebrity ownership can be worth 20 per cent of a painting's value, what kind of premium can we assign when the artist is or was a celebrity? Warhol came closer than any artist to making his art and himself expressions of a famous inescapable brand. Koons has followed his lead, gaining headlines for his flashy studio doodads, his industrial method of art-making and his marriage to an Italian porn star. Bacon's fame as a ferocious personality and artist was much burnished by an acclaimed 1998 biopic called Love is the Devil, and is buttressed in Three Studies by the renown of his sitter, also a celebrated painter. One can only imagine the pandemonium that may ensue when Freud's portrait of supermodel Kate Moss next comes up for sale.

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When huge sums start sloshing around an art work, they valorize it as a commodity and also tend to hollow out its meaning as art. The auction houses did what they could to restore the balance; Sotheby's Tobias Meyer, for instance, likened Warhol's large silkscreen to Picasso's Guernica and Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa. He made those inflated comparisons when Sotheby's was still thinking Silver Car Crash might sell for a mere $60-million. Meyer seemed to be speaking to the public, but his comments were really pitched to the ears of the 1 per cent, who need reassurance that whatever they're buying is a masterpiece executed by a genius at a key art-historical moment.

Sometimes the moment has to be distorted in retrospect. This has been going on for some time with Warhol's early-1960s Death and Disasters series, of which Silver Car Crash is one monumental instance. Warhol's supporters claim that these pieces captured the moment when the saturation power of news media made images of violent death banal. But TV, the new saturation medium of his time, had moved away from bloodied corpses toward a cooled-down form of visual allusion: the crumpled car from which bodies had already been removed, or the police tape around the school yard. The actual heyday of mass media disaster imagery had already passed, and was already enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1940s, when it acquired several images from tabloid news photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig).

With works like Silver Car Crash, the space that begins to gape between the claims made and the price paid must be related both to the supply of capital and to celebrity value. The sales value of contemporary art has ballooned from $850-million in 2002 to $6-billion in 2012, according to ArtNet. Even with the inflational pressure of that huge surge of cash – much of it from new-minted billionaires outside Europe and North America – a good chunk of the latest Warhol record price must come down to the simple fact that he touched and owned it.

Koons's10-foot steel one-liner, which Christie's described as "one of the most recognizable images in today's canon of art history," is associated with the pivotal moment when an artist could contract out all the making of his work – and almost all the thinking too, since Balloon Dog (Orange) is really just a shiny riff on the work of Claes Oldenburg. Bacon's work can't really be called pivotal – it's just an instance of what most serious artists do most of the time, which is to put their craft, talent and imagination fully into whatever is before them. This time, it just happened to be another famous painter.

None of this would have surprised Warhol, who made silkscreen portraits of Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe precisely because they were famous. He installed celebrity as a subject of art, and now the two have become inseparable in the contemporary art market.

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