Andy Warhol's colossal 'Car Crash' painting sells for US$85.4m at Sotheby's

On Wednesday evening in New York, Sotheby's pulled in US$269 million with a fast-paced Contemporary Art Evening Sale led by auctioneer Oliver Barker, which saw 36 of the 38 lots on offer sell. Despite a strong sell-through rate of 94.7%, the mood in the saleroom was notably cautious and none of the star lots stirred up exhilarating bidding wars.

The most valuable lot of the night was Andy Warhol's 3.6-metre 'Car Crash' painting, which fetched US$85.4 million with fees to become the fourth-most expensive painting by the artist ever sold at auctions.

Other top lots include Willem de Kooning's oceanic Untitled and blue-chip artist Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, which sold for US$34.8 and 30 million respectively.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker

Lot 114 | Andy Warhol | White Disaster [White Car Crash 19 Times], Silkscreen ink and graphite on primed canvas
Created in 1963
367.7 x 210.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Stable Gallery, New York
  • Heiner Friedrich
  • Christie’s New York, 5 May 1987, lot 82 (Sold: US$660,000)
  • Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zürich (acquired from the above sale)
  • Acquired from the above in 1996 by the present owner

Estimate upon request, in excess of US$80 million
Hammer Price: US$74,000,000
Sold: US$85,350,500

The top lot of the sale went to Andy Warhol's White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times), which was offered with an irrevocable bid. Opening on a bid of US$66 million, just two telephone bidders competed for the highly-anticipated artwork, one represented by David Schrader, Chairman and Head of Private Sales, the other Grégoire Billault, Chairman of Contemporary Art. 

After five bids, it hammered at US$74 million, selling to Grégoire's client with paddle number 476 for a final price of US$85.4 million.

White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times) now became the fourth-most expensive work by Warhol to sell at auction and came in second place for the his renowned Death and Disasters series, with the crown taken by Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), which sold for a then-record price for the artist at US$105.4 million in 2013.

Grégoire Billault, Chariman of Contemporary Art won the lot for his client with paddle number 476

Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) | Sold for US$105 million in 2013

The Death and Disaster series, which consists of seventy-odd works of art that take as their subjects atomic bombs, car accidents, electric chairs, and other tragedies presented as highly quotidian in the media, was started by Warhol in 1962 after he saw a large plane crash image on the headline news.

Exploring the weighty subject of life and death, Warhol would appropriate source materials from newspapers and police photo archives, and employ the silk screen as a means to mechanically repeat these sensational images across broad swaths of canvas. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have any effect,” he later remarked.

In the wake of post-war optimism and prosperity, automobile was then a physical embodiment of the American Dream, symbolizing freedom, independence and progress. By the year Warhol executed the present lot, 44 per cent of Americans owned one; yet, at the same time, more than 40,000 people died by car crash each year, an average of over 100 per day.

Through the Car Crash paintings, Warhol fearlessly probed a dark side of American society, addressing issues that most preferred not to acknowledge.

Andy Warhol

The current lot exhibited in his 1989 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Created in 1963, the present lot stands at three metre tall, making it the largest single-panel Car Crash painting from the series. In the work, 19 imprints of a fatal collision reel appear in a cinematic sequence across the towering canvas, exuding an air of solemnity almost like an altarpiece.

Only two other large-scale Death and Disaster paintings bear this impression of the crash, one of which, Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, is housed in the in the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the other, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), once set the auction record for the artist.

Compositionally, while the present painting is vertically oriented, the other two works both employ a double-canvas format, showing silk-screened images cascading down on the left.

Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times | The Museum of Modern Art in New York

The present artwork was originally owned by New York’s Stable Gallery, where Warhol held his first solo Pop exhibition in the city. It later changed hands to Heiner Friedrich, a venerable art dealer and collector, and the founder of the Dia Art Foundation.

In May 1987, two months after Warhol’s death, the present lot was put up for sale at Christie’s New York and sold for US$6.6 million to Thomas Ammann, a friend of the artist and a leading Swiss art dealer. Two years later, this painting was exhibited in Warhol’s 1989 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1996, the painting was sold to the present owner and is now back on the market after having remained in the same private collection for more than 25 years. 

Lot 108 | Willem De Kooning | Untitled, Oil on canvas
Created circa 1979
177.8 x 201.9 cm

  • The artist
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer Price: US$30,000,000
Sold: US$34,794,500

Willem de Kooning's Untitled, carrying an in-house guarantee, was the night's second most expensive lot – which, however, also failed to elicite any flurry of raised paddles. After just a few stray bids, the lot hammered at US$30 million from an opening bid of US$22 million, going to another buyer represented by Grégoire with paddle number 471. 

Making its auction debut, the present lot is one of a handful of paintings personally selected by the artist's daughter Lisa de Kooning to be kept in the de Kooning Family Collection since its execution.

Grégoire Billault won the lot for his client with paddle number 471

From Left: Montauk II , Untitled , and The Hat Upstairs, the three works chosen by Lisa de Kooning for the family collection and selling in the auction

Born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1904, de Kooning stepped into the art world at age 12 as an apprentice in a firm of commercial artists and decorators, while attending night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. 

At around 20 years old, he arrived in America as a stowaway on a British freight ship bound for Argentina and jumped ship at Newport News, Virginia, making his way to New Jersey and then to Manhattan where he worked odd jobs and supported himself as a house painter. 

When Europe was burning in the fires of the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism started to blossom in America, and de Koooning became one of the leaders in the movement.

This was the first American art movement to achieve international influence, the historical moment of America leading the art world. Works of abstract expressionism are rebellious, anarchic and carry anti-figurative aesthetics. Artists used lines, shapes and colours as focal points to express their intense feelings such as anxiety and emptiness.

Willem de Kooning

Woman as Landscape set Willem de Kooning's auction record at US$68.9 million

In the mid-1970s, de Kooning devoted himself into creating abstractions that were influenced by his rural surroundings in Long Island, and the landscapes replaced women as a dominant theme in his paintings. 

Though he had long alternated between figuration and abstraction, de Kooning’s artistic output was largely characterized by a similar method of working and reworking his compositions, painting, sanding, drawing, layering, scraping, rotating the canvas and repeating the process. 

Currently, de Kooning's auction record is held by his previous work Woman as Landsacpe, which fetched US$68.9 million at Christie's New York in 2018; while the present Untitled became the third-highest price for the artist at auction. 

Lot 120 | Francis Bacon | Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, Oil on canvas, in three parts
Created in 1964
Each: 35.6 x 30.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London 
  • Private Collection, Paris (acquired from the above in 1964)
  • Sotheby's London, 10 February 2011, lot 30 (Sold: £23,001,250)
  • Acquired from the above sale

Estimate: US$30,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer Price: US$28,000,000
Sold: US$30,000,000

The third most expensive artwork of night was Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, which was sold with an irrevocable bid. Bidding opened at US$24 million and rose rapidly to a hammer price of US$28 million. With fees, the lot sold for US$30 million to a UK buyer with paddle number 444. 

Francis Bacon (right) and Lucian Freud (left)

First of only five triptychs the artist created of Lucian Freud, the piece illustrates his once best friend and artistic rival, 門and stands as a testament to their famously intense relationship that lasted over 40 years.

The friendship of two giants of post-war British figurative painter started in London in 1944, when they instantly clicked on their first encounter. 

The pair was said to be ‘inseparable’ when they were the closest during the 1950s and 1960s, dining and drinking together almost every night in Soho’s restaurants, bars and clubs. Freud’s ex-wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, recalled having to sit with Bacon for dinner nearly every day throughout their short six-year marriage between 1953 and 1959.  

Apart from the beer and skittles, they pair spent time in each other’s west London studios and subject their works to intense scrutiny, sometimes giving harsh criticism to their closest friend.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sold for a record US$142.1 million in 2013

Unfortunately, the two eventually fell out in the 1980s, when Bacon was to enjoy global recognition. At one instance, Bacon blasted Freud’s latest works as “ridiculously” and Freud, in return, caustically labeled Bacon’s paintings from the 1980s “ghastly”. 

Another triptych of Three Studies of Lucian Freud, much larger in size, sold for US$142.1 million at Christie’s New York – brieftly setting the then-record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction and now still holds the auction record for Bacon.

Other Highlight Lots: 

Lot 127 | Jean-Michel Basquiat | Saxaphone, Acrylic and oilstick on canvas
Created in 1986
167.6 x 152.4 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg
  • Private Collection, Brussels 
  • Christie’s London, 24 June 1993, lot 103 (Sold: £58,700)
  • Private Collection, New York 
  • Sotheby’s New York, 19 November 1997, lot 55 (consigned by the above) 
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above sale) 
  • Sotheby’s London, 26 June 2012, lot 20 (consigned by the above, sold: £2,729,250)
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above sale)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: US$12,100,000
Sold: US$13,667,400

Lot 107 | Willem de Kooning | Montauk II, Oil on paper mounted on canvas
Created in 1969
184.2 x 178.4 cm

  • The artist
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$11,000,000
Sold: US$12,663,500


Lot 109 | Willem de Kooning | The Hat Upstairs, Oil on canvas
Created in 1987
195.6 x 223.5 cm

  • The artist
  • Thence by descent to the present owner

Estimate: US$9,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: US$9,000,000
Sold: US$10,665,500

Lot 129 | Alighiero Boetti | Mappa, Embroidery on fabric (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1989 - 1991
259 x 585 cm

  • Emilio Mazzoli, Modena (acquired directly from the artist in 1992)
  • Francesco and Chiara Carraro, Italy (acquired from the above circa late 1990s)
  • Acquired by bequest from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$9,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: US$7,400,000
Sold: US$8,827,100

Lot 115 | Keith Haring | Untitled, acrylic on canvas tarp
Created in 1987
241.3 x 241.9 cm

  • Acquired circa 1995 by the present owner
  • Property from the Collection of Tony Shafrazi, New York

Estimate: US$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: US$3,200,000
Sold: US$3,922,000

Lot 103 | Joan Mitchell | Untitled, Oil on canvas
Created circa 1956
66 x 83.8 cm

  • Stable Gallery, New York 
  • Yoshiaki Tono, Japan (acquired by 1960)
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's London, 18 October 1990, lot 56 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: US$2,600,000
Sold: US$3,196,000

Lot 138 | Louise Bourgeois | Observer, Bronze with dark patina
Conceived in 1947-1949 and cast in 1989, number 5 from an edition of 6 plus one artist's proof
198.1 x 71.1 x 30.5 cm

  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above in November 1991 by the present owner
  • The Collection of Geraldine and Harold Alden

Estimate: US$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: US$2,500,000
Sold: US$3,075,000

Lot 101 | Barbara Kruger | Untitled (My face is your fortune), Gelatin silver print, in artist's frame (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1982, an artist’s proof from an edition of 1 plus 1 artist’s proof
189.2 x 123.8 cm

  • The artist
  • Skarstedt, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Skarstedt, New York 
  • Acquired from the above in December 2006 by the present owner

Estimate: US$600,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: US$1,250,000
Sold: US$1,562,500

Lot 128 | Ernie Barnes | The Tunesmith, Oil on canvas, in artist's frame
Created in 1978
65.7 x 75.2 cm

  • Collection of Berry Gordy, Detroit and Los Angeles (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Private Collection (acquired as a gift from the above)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: US$500,000
Sold: US$630,000

Lot 105 | Betye Saar | Rainbow Mojo, Acrylic on cut leather (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1972
50.5 x 127 cm

  • Estate of Joseph Austin, Sherman Oaks
  • Clark's Fine Art Gallery & Auctioneers, 9 November 2013, lot 207 (consigned by the above)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner 

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000
Hammer Price: US$300,000
Sold: US$378,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction
Date: 16 November 2022
Number of Lots: 38
Sold: 36
Unsold: 2
Sale Rate: 94.7%
Sale Total: US$269,068,700