Warhol’s Soup Cans Earn $15 Million

Mood Conyers with Warhol's  “Campbell’s Soup Cans,”
Mood Conyers with Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,”

Almost 50 years ago the quintessential New York artist, Andy Warhol, had his first one- man show in Los Angeles, thanks to the prescience of a West Coast art dealer named Irving Blum.

Blum also had the uncanny foresight to snap up “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 32 small canvases for $1,000. He would eventually sell the group for $15 million.

The paintings have returned to Los Angeles and are on display at Museum of Contemporary Art through Sept. 19, their first appearance in L.A. since they made their debut at the city’s Ferus Gallery in July 1962.

The exhibition is a tribute to the gallery, which operated from 1957 to 1966, and to Blum, one of its directors. He championed Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella early in their careers and gave Ed Ruscha his first solo show.

Blum, now 80, was a former Knoll Inc. (KNL) furniture salesman who bought a piece of the struggling gallery from artist Edward Kienholz and persuaded Warhol to mount his first one-man show there in 1962.

“It’s astonishing that he had the insight and courage to give Andy his first solo exhibition,” said Jeffrey Deitch, a former gallery owner who now serves as the museum’s director. “At the time it was incredibly radical. Most people refused to even accept that this was art.”

Blum persuaded the New York-based Warhol to have the 1962 show in Los Angeles by saying that “movie stars come to the gallery.”

‘They Didn’t Buy Paintings’

In reality, the few Hollywood actors and directors who collected art were European expatriates who favored French paintings, Blum said in a 1977 oral history he gave to the Archives of American Art. One exception was actor Dennis Hopper, who bought a Warhol soup can in the early 1960s and knew the Ferus Gallery crowd.

“The American movie people didn’t buy anything,” Blum said in the oral history. “They bought big motorcars and beach houses. They didn’t buy paintings.” Blum couldn’t be reached for an interview.

Blum sold six of the 20-by-16-inch Warhol canvases for $100 each. Realizing the work was more significant if the pieces were kept together, he later bought back the ones he sold.

He then negotiated a price from Warhol for all of the paintings, paying him $100 a month for ten months.

“The price sounds shockingly low, but that was the price of contemporary art in those days,” Deitch said in a telephone interview. “There was just a small band of collectors at that time.”

Blum sold the paintings to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for $15 million in 1996, in a deal that was considered partly a donation even though it was one of the highest prices paid for contemporary art at the time.

Vegetable Soup

Last year a 6-foot-high painting from the period, “Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable),” sold at Christie’s International for $23.8 million.

From 1988 to 2010, Warhol artworks overall trailed both the Standard & Poor’s 500 and an index of 50 contemporary artists, delivering a 255 percent return versus 395 percent for stocks and 455 percent for the contemporary artists, according to Artnet Worldwide.

Amy King, a vice president at Artnet, attributed that to the fact that Warhol produced so many works, many of them of lower value.

Warhol’s other Soup Cans from the Ferus Gallery period have beaten the market and his peers recently, delivering a 2,560 percent return since 1996, Artnet data show.

The Soup Cans will be on display at MOCA’s Grand Avenue location downtown. Nearby hang pieces from contemporary artists, including Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, all of whom owe a debt to Warhol, Deitch said.

“Andy Warhol defined Pop Art,” Deitch said. “Irving was very astute in seeing that the economics of being a dealer was based on retaining great works for your own collection.” (Written by Christopher Palmeri)

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