At What Price Celebrity? Warhol's Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor Up For Sale

An image capturing the sale of a Warhol Elizabeth Taylor portrait in 2007--
Actor Hugh Grant famously sold this copy for an $18.5 million dollar profit

How soon can someone profit from a deceased celebrity’s image?  This question appears to have been answered this week with the passing of movie legend Elizabeth Taylor and the announcement some 24 hours following her death of the auction of one of the most iconic Warhol portraits bearing her famous face and more infamous “violet eyes.” Currently owned by New York hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen, the 1963 silkscreen (Liz #5) will be sold May 12th as the Wall Street Journal reported today at the auction house of Phillips de Pury and is estimated to fetch in excess of $20 million dollars.

Warhol's Men in Her Life (1962) sold this past November
for a staggering $71.7 million dollars at auction
Just this past November, another of Warhol’s works featuring Elizabeth Taylor sold for a staggering $63.4 million dollars through the same firm, becoming the second highest price paid at auction for a Warhol (the record of $71.7 million for Green Car Crash was paid in 2007). Men in Her Life is a seven-foot tall black and white painting based on a Life Magazine photograph of Taylor with third husband Mike Todd and future husband Eddie Fisher. Fisher, like Taylor, had only recently passed away (in September 2010), when the painting went to auction.

Representing the personal drama of a public celebrity played out in Warhol’s famous mode of repetition, the painting and its high valuation has as much to expose about our own perverse focus on celebrity culture and the price we are all willing to pay for glimpses behind the carefully constructed representations of their “perfect” lives. No doubt, the Taylor-Todd-Fisher scandal has its resonance with today’s Jolie-Pitt-Aniston spectacle and the endless repetition of images accompanying their “real-life” story.

The public's desire for images and stories of celebrity's
"imperfect" lives continues as Warhol predicted
Seen in another light, the high profile auction of this category of art works reminds us once again of the often taboo subject of the art market and those commercial interests that persistently intersect with the production and circulation of art. It is also a reminder of the “umbilical cord of gold” connecting elites and art producers that art critic Clement Greenberg spoke about in his famous 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, written against the backdrop of escalating interest and valuation in works of modern art during the inter-war period of the twentieth century. In this sense, the upcoming sale of Warhol’s Elizabeth Taylor portrait exposes the reality of art as commodity connected to the public’s insatiable desire for celebrity in its most stark, opportunistic, and highly profitable light. 

Further Reading:

Alexander, Jeffrey C. "The Celebrity Icon." Cultural Sociology 4 (2010): 323-336.

Barry, Elizabeth. "Celebrity, Cultural Production, and Public Life." International Journal of Cultural Studies 11 (2008): 251-258.