Warhol’s Other Masterpieces
The artist’s eye for fine watches proves he was among the most sophisticated connoisseurs.
As in the court of the Sun King, Andy Warhol’s acolytes sought constant affirmation from their iconoclast friend and benefactor. Working with him in New York in the 1980s, Marc Balet, art director of Warhol’s Interview magazine at the time, remembers trying to impress him by showing off the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso watch he had just bought on a trip to Switzerland. “I wore it to the Factory,” he tells Robb Report, referring to the artist’s famed studio, where his circle congregated. “I was so proud of it and wanted him to see my most prized possession and be jealous. He looked at it and shrugged: ‘Oh, yeah. I have some of those.’ ”
He certainly did. After his death in 1987 from complications following gallbladder surgery, 313 watches were found at Warhol’s East 66th Street townhouse and sold at Sotheby’s the following year in a landmark 10-day auction, along with over 10,000 other objects. It was the first time such a sizable cache of fine watches belonging to the same owner had come to market, and it captured the imagination of collectors worldwide. Value was no longer attached solely to the build of a timepiece; price could now be magnified by the object’s journey. It sure helped that Warhol had an astute eye as well as an adventure-packed life. Markedly different from the pop aesthetic he had championed, the watches were classic and refined. And unlike the to-and-fro of his iconic silk screens at auction, the watches seldom reappear to feed an ever hungrier market. When they do, they make newspaper headlines around the world—first because of the interest generated among niche collectors, then again when they break auction records.
Last year Warhol’s circa-1943 Rolex Oyster 3525 in stainless steel and pink gold sold for about $616,800 at Christie’s in Geneva, well over twice its low estimate. “It was the highest price ever achieved by a Warhol-owned watch to date,” says Christie’s watch specialist Remi Guillemin. “There was huge interest in it after it went on a tour of showrooms around the world.” The 3525 was the original Rolex Chronograph fitted to an Oyster case and comes with more than pop-art provenance: It was known as the “P.O.W.” watch, after Rolex gave the model to British prisoners of war to replace timepieces that had been seized by the Nazis. The Rolexes were issued with the understanding that the soldiers wouldn’t have to pay for them until the war was won. But the Warhol touch is golden: A similar “civilian”-owned example sold at Monaco Legend Auctions two months later for a mere US$85,000, approx, $111,500.
“If one of the three Cartier Tank watches that Andy owned came to sale, that would be sensational,” says Guillemin. “When a Tank owned by Jackie Onassis was auctioned in 2017, it had a high estimate of approx. $157,000 and sold for $498,000. The association with Warhol would be a major draw.” The fact that Jackie O’s reportedly went to Kim Kardashian is a parable of modern celebrity and the agency of money over credibility. In Warhol’s era, despite his prescient prediction that “in the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes,” fame came with status you couldn’t purchase. But you can certainly put a price on it today—as long as it’s genuine. Last year Sotheby’s failed to sell a Rolex 6538 “James Bond Submariner” with an estimate between $236,000and $367,000. Sean Connery wore the same model in Dr. No in 1962, but this lot wasn’t the actual prop. Also in 2019, a Rolex GMT-Master 1675 that had been owned and worn regularly by Marlon Brando sold for US$1.952 million. The same model typically goes for under aournd $33,000.
At the coda for his era, you could have bought one of Warhol’s gold Tanks for $6,500 from Sotheby’s, and then in 2012 for $13,9000 at Leslie Hindman in Chicago. Today, who knows how much? It may be the most Warhol of the trove, with a minimal graphic style that fit with the artist’s own Halston-black wardrobe. “Warhol had a passion for icons,” says Cameron Barr, founder and CEO of the vintage-timepiece website and showroom Craft & Tailored. “He liked things that were as simple as they were sophisticated. He was photographed wearing a Cartier Tank Louis frequently. It was introduced in 1918, but its design is timeless. As he said, ‘I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.’ ” Family historian and author Francesca Cartier Brickell recalls talking to a watch designer who worked under her grandfather Jean-Jacques Cartier, who ran the jeweller’s London branch from 1945 until 1974. He described the house style as “the absence of unnecessary twiddly bits.” “The Tank is the perfect example of this less-is-more approach,” she says.
Warhol was an artist, publisher and collector. In each category, his skills varied from workman-like to savant. His imprimatur could also bring heat to a new market. When he began buying Deco furniture, the category developed a bright halo. His watch selections were particularly sharp. “Looking at what he bought, it’s clear he was obsessed with the design aspects of watchmaking,” says John Reardon, former head of Christie’s watch department and now founder of Collectability, an online market for vintage Patek Philippe. “He loved retailer signatures, shaped watches and classic design. Within the world of Patek Philippe, we can see his taste for classic Calatravas as well as more avant-garde pieces, such as the Patek Philippe Gilbert Albert–designed Ricochet collection watch. The Patek Philippe 2526 with enamel dial with a Serpico y Laino Caracas retailer signature is the piece I would most like to see at auction again. The 2503 he owned sold for around $98,500 at auction in 2016, so his 2526 could bring a record price.”
The story behind how the 313 watches came to market is as intriguing as anything else in Warhol’s life—and perfectly encapsulates his profoundly eccentric behaviour. He started to buy pieces as soon as he had disposable income and often styled them in a particularly Warhol way, frequently wearing a woman’s gold Rolex over his shirt cuff. None of his circle knew how many timepieces he had amassed, though. “The first watches were found in the ornate fringed fabric canopy above his four-poster bed,” says Daryn Schnipper, the senior vice president at Sotheby’s in New York who officiated the auction in April 1988 and then, seven months later, the sale of a second batch that had been discovered in the false bottom of a file drawer. “It’s important to remember that it was early days for the watch market,” she says. “People bid for them at the time purely because they had belonged to him.”
Paige Powell, who was one of Warhol’s closest friends and employees—the two were even planning to adopt a child together before he died—was gifted numerous artworks by him but still came to the auction. “I bought a watch from the 1950s, with Gene Autry’s face on it, for US$1,800,” she recalls. For Powell, it represents a strong connection to her late friend, who as a boy kept a scrapbook with pictures of Autry and screen partner Roy Rogers glued into its pages.
Warhol bought watches regularly and prolifically, hoovering them up from markets and dealers along with cookie jars, American Indian art and assorted ephemera. As the working-class son of Rusyn émigrés, he spent his new wealth on watches by big names that would hold value. He knew all the best dealers worldwide and turned shopping into a sport, frequently hunting with friend, art dealer and collector Todd Brassner, who died in an inferno that engulfed his art-filled apartment in Trump Tower in 2018.
Warhol was drawn to repetition in his art and his timepieces alike. There are variations on certain designs, like the Tank, that appear again and again in his collection, and preferred shapes, such as square dials by Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe from the 1950s and 1960s that were arduous to make at the time. He also invested in highly detailed graphic work, drawn to the moon phases on a Patek Philippe piece circa 1970 (which went for a high approx. $28,900 in 1988) and a 1973 large gold oval wristwatch with a Cartier Audemars Piguet movement and distorted Roman numerals that look like they jumped out of a Dalí painting (which sold for an even higher approx. $49,100). As well as the classics, fascinating outliers popped up in the collection, including a Bulgari gold spiral bracelet watch, which is a predecessor of the Bulgari Serpenti Turbogas (the 35 mm 18-carat pink-gold version with diamonds currently retails for around $53,900).
Of the brands that define the hoard, Cartier and Piaget are particularly notable. Buyers dispatched from the latter walked away from the 1988 auction with five of the seven lots bearing the Piaget name for its archive in Geneva. One, with a moulded gold oval case and gold baton numerals, went on to spark the ongoing Piaget Vintage Inspiration series of new watches, including a 2015 limited-edition Black Tie timepiece in white gold. The lines of the original Piaget frame—not square, not circular—hit a sweet spot between YSL Le Smoking chic and vintage Chrysler Building industrial Deco. So Studio 54.
It is tricky to draw comparisons between the market for Warhol’s art and the one for his watches. Prices for his paintings and prints rocketed in 2007 before plummeting along with almost everything else in the art world in 2008, then stabilized and have risen steadily since 2010, with an average annual growth of 12.5 percent, according to Artnet. Warhol’s 1963 Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) changed hands for US$105.4 million in 2013, but there are also entry-level artworks. Not enough of his timepieces come to market to create a reliable metric of inflation. We know how much a rare Patek Philippe has appreciated, but a Warhol provenance throws a curveball. These are watches tethered to a glamorous past and narrative and can command whatever a Warhol worshipper is willing to pay. In some ways, each of the watches is a rarer find than one of his paintings. There are scores of Maos and Marilyns out there, but only one 1930 Longines for Wittnauer silver aviator watch that he actually owned.
Within the 976 pages of Blake Gopnik’s recently published epic biography, Warhol, there are several accounts of the artist’s hoarder tendencies. He liked, it is said, to walk around with a breast pocket full of diamonds. They never saw the light of day; he just enjoyed knowing they were there, a fabulously valuable stash without any real purpose. That frisson of glamour through physical association is something he went on to invest in the “Business Art” that defined the last 15 years of his life: projects with little hands-on involvement but his name attached, which was enough. In many ways the 1988 auctions at Sotheby’s represented his greatest expression of the medium. Hundreds of people bid for watches because they had been chosen and touched by him, maybe strapped around his wrist. In the space of two days seven months apart, he fashioned a fresh market. Warhol made classic, craft-heavy watches sexy. And he didn’t even have to be there to do it.