Shelf Life

Pop art prices pop!

Marketplace Staff Sep 16, 2009
Shelf Life

Pop art prices pop!

Marketplace Staff Sep 16, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Most of us are distressingly familiar with the phrase “bubble” by now. We’ve had two of ’em in just the past 10 years: dot-coms and housing. But there was another one earlier this decade, too.

Pop art, paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. That market was exploding. Seven and eight-figure price tags on some of ’em. Just like housing, though, the art bubble popped in 2008. Richard Polsky chronicles the rise and the fall of pop art prices in his new book “I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon).” Richard, welcome to the program.

Richard Polsky: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Being able to sell Andy Warhol, even though it was too soon, sort of implies that you bought him earlier. And in fact that was the title of your earlier book, “I bought Andy Warhol.” Tell me about the painting in question first.

POLSKY: Well, what I bought is called a Fright Wig. This is a portrait of Andy Warhol where it looks as if he stuck his finger in a light socket, and his white hair is standing straight up.

Ryssdal: You bought it for how much money?

POLSKY: I paid $47,500 for it back in 1988, and it started appreciating rapidly. The next thing I knew it was worth a lot of money. I ended up selling it in 2005 for about $375,000. You know I thought I hit the ball out of the park. I was thrilled. But had I waited until June of 2007, a similar painting brought $2.6 million. You can imagine what that felt like.

Ryssdal: No, I can’t, actually. Because I’ve never… I can’t even imagine that.

POLSKY: It’s pretty funny the whole thing.

Ryssdal: But really you just got out of the market too soon. There was a bubble, and you were sort of on the wrong end of it.

POLSKY: The world was going through a funny time, as we know. There was a nice analogy with the housing market, too. Pretty much people used to buy homes to live in them. And they used to buy art to look at it. It all changed. Everybody was flipping everything. Suddenly you saw your house as an investment, and you’d try to sell it. And that’s what people were doing with art. It was no longer about connoisseurship, it was just about making money.

Ryssdal: In addition to the transformation of the art market that you describe in this book, you yourself go through a transformation. You talk in the beginning of your deep, deep feeling for this painting. For the Andy Warhol Fright Wig. And then at the end there’s a great line you have, where you say, you know, I used to be an art connoisseurship or a dealer, and now I’m just trying to wring all the value I can from these paintings.

POLSKY: It sounds really crass and cynical, and however you want to put it. But yeah, I’d go to an art museum, and I couldn’t enjoy the art anymore. I’d just look at a Mark Rothko or something, and say, god, that’s worth $10 million. I couldn’t see the art anymore. But this Fright Wig, this self-portrait, every time I’d look at it, when I lived with it, you know, I’d feel great, and it made me feel special.

Ryssdal: Do you miss it now that you don’t have it?

POLSKY: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

Ryssdal: If you could have sold it for $2.5 million, though, would you still be missing it?

POLSKY: No, no.

Ryssdal: All of these deals whether it’s at a gallery or at auction, I mean, yes there are contracts and paperwork to be done, but it is in essence an industry built largely on deals made by handshake, largely unregulated.

POLSKY: Do you realize anyone can become an art dealer. I mean tomorrow literally you could get up in the morning, find a space, paint the walls white, hang a few pictures, and you’re in business. And there’s a lot of manipulation. Let’s say you own a lot of Warhols. And you decide, god, I want to see my paintings appreciate. Well, it’s the easiest thing in the world to go to the auctions, and bid up every Warhol that comes up, assuming you have the money, even if you don’t get it. There’s an appreciation on what you’re already holding. And the craziest part is it’s all legal.

Ryssdal: The art market crashes in 2007, 2008, as does the global economy and the U.S. housing market, and all the rest. We know the story. Where is art today? Is it scrapping to make a rebound as some parts of the economy are?

POLSKY: Yeah, pretty much. It is on the rebound a bit. But what’s interesting right now is, it’s kinda gone back to its roots, where it really is again about connoisseurship. A lot of the speculators are on the sidelines right now. They left the market, they’re out. So you now have people who are buying art who actually want to live with it. And it’s kinda refreshing.

Ryssdal: Richard Polsky. His most recent book is called “I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon).” Mr. Polsky, thanks so much.

POLSKY: Thank you very much.

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