When can you buy a Warhol for under €1,500? When it’s an artist’s tapestry

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The market for the neglected medium is still limited

Chuck Close with Donald Farnsworth (director of Magnolia Editions) and Brad Pitt in front of Close’s tapestry Brad,2009, at Pace Gallery in New York. Photo by Lewis deSoto.

One of the most photographed items at Modern Art Oxford’s “Love Is Enough” exhibition (organised by the artist Jeremy Deller, until 8 March) is Andy Warhol’s hand-woven tapestry of Marilyn Monroe, produced as part of an edition in 1968. The work is owned by Larry Wasser, a board member of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, who says that he bought it for “under $10,000”—even then a steal for a work by the most popular of Pop artists.

While not new by any means in the history of art, artists’ tapestries remain a hybrid form, eliciting puzzlement from the buying public. A growing number of contemporary artists have had tapestries made from their designs, including Alex Katz, Chuck Close, William Kentridge, Mel Ramos, Gerhard Richter and Kiki Smith—and this spring, Cornelia Parker is creating a 13m-long tapestry as part of the British Library’s exhibition marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (15 May-24 July). However, sales on the primary and secondary markets are limited, in part because many of these artists’ dealers aren’t sold on the idea.

Katz, best known for his paintings, says that none of his tapestries—produced by the Oakland, California-based Magnolia Editions—has sold, “at least I haven’t received any money for them,” he says. “There is no public for it, and I don’t plan to do it again.”

Not everyone agrees. While the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York has neither shown nor sold any of Mel Ramos’s tapestries, his San Francisco gallery, Modernism, has done both. Andrew Richards, a senior director at Manhattan’s Marian Goodman Gallery, says that William Kentridge’s tapestries have been included in exhibitions of his work. Kentridge “makes the tapestries a very active part of his body of work, and we don’t hide them”. His gallery representatives say that Kentridge’s drawings and tapestries are “of equal value”.

Pace gallery, which represents Kiki Smith and Chuck Close, has sold numerous tapestries by these artists, that were included in their exhibitions, according to Susan Dunne, the gallery’s director. “Visitors to the gallery and major collectors understand this work, seeing the tapestries as the artists see them, as an extension of their artistic ideas.” She says that a trustee of New York’s Museum of Modern Art purchased one of Smith’s tapestries from a gallery show in early 2014 that also included the artist’s metal sculptures, blown glass and paintings.

Dunne adds: “People love Chuck [Close]’s self-portraits, whether prints, paintings or tapestries.” (The majority of Close’s 22 editions of tapestries are either self-portraits or portraits of his artist friends—although some are of other well-known figures, such as Barack Obama, Kate Moss and Brad Pitt.) Close’s tapestries sell for up to $250,000, while his paintings reach $3m on the primary market.

The prices for Warhol tapestries on the secondary market have also not been anywhere near those for his graphic prints and original paintings. A “Marilyn” tapestry sold at Cornette de Saint Cyr auction house in Brussels in January 2014 for €1,417, the highest public sale price for this particular image, although the “Flowers” series of tapestries have produced better results, reaching a high of €23,431 at Tajan in Paris in 2006.

Paul Hobson, the director of Modern Art Oxford, sees an upswing in interest in artist tapestries, at least by the artists themselves. He says that “artists are attracted to the specific texture and physicality of the medium, its unique sense of time and process, and the challenge of creating complex compositions from dyed threads. Collectors throughout the centuries have coveted tapestries as highly prized status symbols of wealth and prestige, often over and above other media, and the same could be true, of course, today.”

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