Back in July, a Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix car caused a sensation when it sold for $29.65 million at Bonhams’ Goodwood sale, trouncing the previous record for an automobile sold at public auction. This November, the W196 name will come up yet again for auction, only this time there are a dozen cars on offer. The twelve W196R’s, unusual for Formula One because of their enveloping streamlined bodywork, are actually silkscreen ink images, taken from a Daimler photograph, and make up one of pop art icon Andy Warhol’s very last works. Almost fourteen feet tall and fifteen feet wide, the stunning piece was commissioned by Mercedes-Benz in 1986 to celebrate the centenary of the automobile (which Daimler arguably invented). Warhol died just a year later, aged 58.
Most people know the American artist primarily for his Campbell’s Soup cans and celebrity portraits, but he was no stranger to using automobiles as his subject, and apparently he was fascinated by them. In 1979, BMW let Warhol have his way with an M1 Procar as the fourth part of their BMW Art Car Project, and back in the ‘60s he featured cars in his Death and Disaster series of paintings. This Mercedes piece, meanwhile, is part of a larger series, aptly named Cars, with which Mercedes wanted Warhol to trace the evolution of their designs from the first Benz Patent-Motorwagen to their then current and very high tech C111 experimental vehicles. Warhol died unexpectedly and the series remained unfinished, but it has been exhibited twice, once in 1988 and again in 2010. For this particular piece, the W196 was an obvious choice for a celebration of all things Mercedes, as the radically advanced car signaled the much-anticipated return of the Silver Arrows to Grand Prix racing and absolutely steamrolled the competition during its short career. It’s an interesting choice for artistic representation as well, and according to Christie’s, who is presenting the piece at their upcoming Post-War and Contemporary Art sale in New York:
It becomes a symbol of post-war prosperity, industrial challenge, and America’s fascination with the packaged image of the sleek. Repeated twelve times, the loaded symbol of the car is at once exacerbated and deflated. Conversely there is a remarkably sensual and seductive quality in the way the cars are presented without shadows, as if they were floating, and in the iridescent colors. This repetition process lies at the heart of many of Warhol’s seminal works, such as the Brillo Boxes, Campbell’s Soup Cans or the Marilyn portraits. Warhol indulges in the American fascination with objects, status, beauty, and fame, reveling in the lack of consciousness precipitated by obsessive material desire.
Christie’s estimates that the work will bring $12 to $16 million. Compared to other prominent Warhol pieces, especially the $100 million Eight Elvises that sold privately in 2009, it’s no record breaker, but it’s important in being a work from one of his most notable periods as well as one of his very last. It is also important because as a piece of automotive art, the market for which has gotten quite strong, it is on a completely different level in terms of value because of its association with such a widely known artist. Depending on what kind of reception this sale gets from the art world, which isn’t exactly predictable, it could potentially drive the market for automotive fine art even further.
Proceeds are said to be going towards development for the Daimler Art Collection and its commitment to art. Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening sale will take place on November 12 in the Christie’s salesroom in Rockefeller Center in New York City.
By Andrew Newton
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