The Art of Artflation

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I don’t understand why last week at Christie’s, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 painting Ohhhh…Alright….—of a dejected woman on a telephone (talking, perhaps, to a cheatin’ lover) and taken virtually verbatim from the D.C. Comics June 1963 issue of “Sacred Hearts”—sold for $38 million ($42.65 with Christie’s fees). Or, as Dr. Evil might have said: “thirty-eight miiiilllllion daallars.” Which was a pretty good return on just a few dollars worth of paint and canvas.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Philistine when it comes to art. After all, I hang reproductions of Leroy Nieman on my wall. But the idea that ’60s Pop Art, much of which borrowed from ’60s Commercial Art, fetches such lucre, not to mention such high esteem in art history, is a curious paradox. Until recently, commercial artists (aka graphic designers) weren’t even allowed at the art world table.

If you missed the report by Carol Vogel in The New York Times, the painting was even valued much higher:

‘The Lichtenstein’s seller, the Las Vegas casino owner Stephen A. Wynn, had been trying to part with the painting for a while now, and just a few months ago dealers like New York’s William Acquavella were asking about $50 million. But even the international reach of an auction giant like Christie’s could not make that number realistic.”

Coming in second in the bidding was Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable), a 1962 painting with a can opener cutting into the signature can. The estimate was $30 to $50 million, but it ended up bringing a mere $23.8 million. It was being sold by Barney Ebsworth, a Seattle collector, to raise money to finance a church designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

The inflated (artflation) price for such art is commensurate with the surfeit of larder hoarded by the wealthy few. It can only be viewed as playing a game of Art Monopoly. And yet the millions paid—of a borrowed or pilfered image, no less, and which incidentally does not find its way into the artists’ pockets—could go elsewhere. Not just a Tadao Ando church: How about funding art appreciation programs at the MBA level? Or how about real art education programs in American primary schools?

Read this weekend’s Daily Heller on Eva Zeisel’s 104 birthday here, and Kevin O’Callahagn’s forthcoming spectacular here.

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