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Andy Warhol car crash artwork sells for ‘monumental’ $85.4 million

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

This article was updated with the final sale price and other details following the auction’s conclusion.

Andy Warhol may be best known for his pop art iconography of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and Campbell’s soup cans, but it was one of his silkscreen prints of a mangled car crash that on Wednesday joined the most valuable post-war works ever to sell at auction.

“White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times),” a colossal image from the artist’s “Death and Disaster” series, fetched $85.4 million at Sotheby’s in New York, a sum the auction house described as “monumental.”

At the time Warhol created the work in 1963, he had become transfixed with gruesome and morbid images — atomic bomb clouds, electric chairs — and how widely print publications reproduced them, believing that readers had become immune to their impact. Of all his output, the series most explicitly dealt with his fixation on human mortality.

Andy Warhol pictured at his New York studio, the Factory, in 1983. Credit: Brownie Harris/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

In “White Disaster,” Warhol duplicated a single image of an automobile accident 19 times in black and white. At 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide, it is the largest of his car crash works.

“What distinguishes (the artwork) is not only its immense scale, which really bewilders anybody who stands in front of it … but also its palette,” explained David Galperin, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in New York, ahead of the sale. “It really seems to glow, the way that the black silk screen is registered against the sharp white background,” he added, explaining that Warhol repeated his image in the series in different tonalities, including lavender and orange.

The large-scale silkscreen is 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

The large-scale silkscreen is 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Galperin compared the piece’s scale and shape to religious altarpieces, referencing Warhol’s Catholic upbringing and the religious undercurrents in his work — particularly how religious icon paintings informed his celebrity portraits. Warhol worked on the “Death and Disaster” series at the same time that he was screenprinting his famed images of Monroe after her death in 1962.

“These ideas of celebrity, tragedy, fame, death — these are the themes that occupied Warhol and I think that the series he was working on simultaneously, the Marilyn paintings and the “Death and Disaster paintings, are intricately linked,” Galperin said.

"Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)" set a record when it fetched over $100 million in 2013.

“Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” set a record when it fetched over $100 million in 2013. Credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

In 2013, a smaller work from the series, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” sold at Sotheby’s for a record-breaking $105.4 million. It reigned as Warhol’s most expensive artwork until last year, when one of his silkscreens of Monroe shattered the record for any American artist, reaching $195 million.

Prior to the sale, “White Disaster” had been held in a private collection for 25 years, and was previously owned by both Heiner Friedrich, founder of Dia Art Foundation, and art dealer Thomas Ammann, according to Sotheby’s. It has appeared in major exhibitions about Warhol and pop art more broadly at the Tate Museum in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and, most recently, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The work was on sale in one of two major auctions held at Sotheby’s New York on Wednesday that fetched a combined $314.9 million. Elsewhere, an untitled Willem de Kooning painting went for $34.8 million, the second-highest sum ever paid for a work by the Dutch American artist, the auction house said. Works by Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat were among some of the other eight-figure sales.

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