A painting that gets better as art if it sells for $100 million

Andy Warhol's "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)" (1963) will be offered at Sotheby’s on November 13. 

A member of Christie's staff looks at Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucien Freud' on October 14, 2013 in London, England. The piece sold for $142.4 million at auction on November 12.

Last night at Christie's, Francis Bacon's 1969 " Three Studies of Lucian Freud" was auctioned off for $142.4 million -- the most ever paid for a work of art. The triptych sold after a reported 6 minutes of fierce telephone bidding, and went to an identified bidder. The previous record was held by Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which went for $119.9 million in 2012. Christie's had estimated "Three Studies" would only be worth $85 million.

The record could possibly be broken again tonight, when Andy Warhol's 1963 painting "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)" hits the auction block  at Sotheby's in New York. The only piece from Warhol's "Death and Disasters" series to not be on display in a museum, the painting measures 8 by 13 feet and depicts the aftermath of a horrific car crash. 

To the mega-wealthy who have $100 million to drop on a painting, it's less about art than status. And, in a way, that's what Warhol was getting at, says art critic Blake Gopnik. 

"The whole point of this picture is about the way we love commidities in this country, the way America's all about high prices -- objects you want to buy," Gopnik says. "So if I was a billionaire buying this picture, I'd want to spend at least a hundred million bucks on it, because that's what Damien Hirst sold his diamond studded skull for. So, it seems to me, you want to match that magical price tag -- and I might even bid myself up to $250 million, which is what a Cezanne sold for to the royal family in Doha."

If the idea of spending more money than most people can even imagine on a single piece of art seems befuddling, think of it from an investment standpoint.

"It's true that collectors love to raise prices on their works, because everything else they own becomes more money," Gopnik says. "[If] you own a bunch of Warhols and one of them makes the record price, then all the sudden you own a bunch of other Warhols worth 60, 80 million."

But to Gopnik, who is currently writing a biography on Warhol, high price tags could reaffirm Warhol’s work

"The weird thing about this picture is that the higher price it fetches, the better it is as art. If this thing goes for a hundred million bucks, it's a kind of the apotheosis of what Warhol was all about -- maybe everything that Warhol was all about."

But, Gopnik says, don't think of that as an endorsement of the bubble-ever-waiting-to-burst art market, where works sell for more and more astronomical sums each passing year. In the eye of this critic, any Warhol -- but especially a piece like this -- selling for hundreds of millions of dollars would be the ultimate coup for the artist.

"This is something I would never normally say. I'm famous as a kind of scold. I hate the art market. I go after auctions all the time. But in this case, this picture, it seems to me, is all about Warhol turning a tragedy -- something really sad, a car wrapped around a tree -- into the glitzy commodity. That's what Warhol did with his own life, right? He turns himself into the ultimate commodity. So if this tragedy goes for more money, then he's done a better job of what his pictures are all about. Half this picture is all silver -- it's basically a silver ingot. Half this picture already turns itself into pure value, pure commodity, and if this goes for even more money, then that's realized in a really complete way. He's finally shown that this culture that he lived in -- that we live in -- is about nothing else then buying and selling."

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

A member of Christie's staff looks at Francis Bacon's 'Three Studies of Lucien Freud' on October 14, 2013 in London, England. The piece sold for $142.4 million at auction on November 12.

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