Dennis Hopper's Shot-Up Warhol Blows Away Its Estimate at Christie's

New York's 2011 auction season started with a bang this morning when a 1972 Warhol screen print of a blue-faced Mao, riddled with bullets from the time its former owner, the late Dennis Hopper, shot it up in a paranoid fit, sold for an eye-popping $302,500 — more than ten times its presale high estimate of $30,000. Bought by a New York investment banker at the Christie's Interiors day sale, the signed painting (one of 250 published by Castelli Graphics) was the star performer among the some 220 lots from the collection of the famously untamed Hollywood actor, who died from cancer last year at age 74.

The artworks and memorabilia made a combined $1,806,725 in the first leg of the two-day sale, with more Hopper property heading to the block at Christie's tomorrow. In November, a much smaller group of the actor's artworks fetched $12.8 million including, $5.8 million for a late untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat in acrylic, oil stick, graphite, paper collage, and crayon. Hopper, an esteemed photographer and art-scene staple during his life, is viewed as having had a canny touch as a collector.


Leaving the mildly attended salesroom this morning, Amed Khan seemed slightly dazed when asked how high he had been willing to go on the Mao that he had just won for a $250,000 hammer price (before premium). "$80,000," said the young investment banker, the president of Paradigm Global Group Inc. "It's a remarkable piece of history," continued the casually dressed collector. "I won it and that's all you need to say."

Khan says his real passion is in collecting antiquities — "the older the better" — so this 38-year-old Warhol, the first by the artist to enter his collection, is a relative exception. "I like Warhol and Hopper," Khan said by way of explanation. "Who doesn't?"

Khan wasn't kidding about the history of the piece, given that Hopper fired two well-placed shots at the artwork one late evening, hitting the frame and a spot just over Mao's right eyelid. One version of the story holds that the shooting happened on a night of partying when the actor mistook the portrait for the Communist boogeyman himself.

Hopper, who met Warhol in 1963 and became friends with the artist, told the Prince of Pop about the incident and the two artists collaborated on the damaged aftermath, adding the words "warning shot" above Mao's left shoulder and circling the right eye in red, writing the words "bullet hole" next to it.

Print collectors are usually obsessive about condition — with the more pristine, the higher the price as their credo — but in this case "the two half-inch bullet holes in the subject," as the condition report cites the damage, had the opposite effect. In fact, the work smashed the record for a Mao print, set back at Sotheby's London in September 2007 when one made £60,500 ($121,975) at the zenith of that art-market bubble.

The bullet-pocked print will certainly add to Warhol's lexicon of violence, becoming a footnote to more important works such as "Shot Red Marilyn" that sold at Christie’s New York back in May 1989 for $4 million.

Meanwhile, another Warhol print on offer at today's sale, a 36-by-36-inch "Marilyn" from 1967, fetched $206,500 on an estimate of $40-60,000. It also hailed from a huge edition of 250 plus another 26 artist proofs, and was originally part of a ten-print series of the film siren executed in various colors.

But the lion's share of the action was not about six-figure name brands but quirkier, beatnik-like fare, much of it being offered without reserve — a minimum price set by the seller — which instilled an entertaining gambling atmosphere in the conservatively appointed salesroom.

A handful of iconic California artists whom Hopper befriended also incited some fevered bidding as Wallace Berman's untitled 1963 verifax collage, featuring a black-and-white appropriated image of a seated nude viewed on a tiny portable Sony TV set, sold for $42,500 against a $12-18,000 estimate, and Bruce Conner's "Picnic on the Grass," a 1962 work in fabric, painting paper, plastic, string, acorn gouache, and glass on masonite (est. $10-15,000), sold to Amy Gold of L&M Arts for a rousing $96,100.

A young bearded bidder in blue jeans snagged George Herms' "Raw Opium" from circa 1960-61, a wall-mounted assemblage comprised of gloves, textile, stamped wood, and print paper (est. $1,500-2,000) that sold for $16,250. Though he didn't want to be identified, the collector said he was thrilled with his acquisition. "I'm just a fan of George Herms," he said. "He's a hero of the younger generation and those who know of him. He's been called the father of American assemblage."

Asked if the Hopper provenance had any impact on his bidding, the collector, who had unsuccessfully bid on several other Herms, said, "Not at all, but it's cool."

New York dealer Hugo Nathan of Dickinson Roundell won one of those other Herms, "Red Springs," a 1985 assemblage piece consisting of mattress springs and scrap metal (est. $2,500-3,500), that sold for $5,625. "I bought it for myself," said the dealer, noting he was outbid on other efforts for works by Berman and Claes Oldenberg. "It's a great collection and a really interesting group. It's so rare to see a celebrity with independent taste."

Hopper definitely had an eclectic eye and range of interests, as evidenced by Marcel Duchamp's "A Poster Within a Poster (Schwarz 588)," a 1963 lithograph from an edition of 300, signed by the artist and dedicated to Hopper. It sold to New York dealer and noted contemporary Chinese art promoter Larry Warsh for $18,750 against an $8,000-12,000 estimate. "What it doesn't say in the catalogue," remarked Warsh, is that Duchamp "only signed ten of them, and that changes the nature of the piece."

A number of photographs of Hopper and friends also drew bursts of bidding, including Helmut Newton's "Dennis Hopper, Venice," an 1985 picture (est. $5-7,000) that sold for $8,125, and Annie Leibovitz's debauched "Portrait of Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken at Chateau Marmont" from 1995 (Est. $3,00-5,000), which sold to a telephone bidder for $12,500.

Victor Skrebneski's brilliant gelatin silver-print diptych "Dennis Hopper," a 1990 work exhibiting a hallucinatory, double-exposure effect, sold to another telephone bidder for $9,375 on a $4,000-6,000 estimate.


Further Hopper memorabilia and ephemera, including posters from his hit films like "Easy Rider," will charge the block for presumably more action at Christie's tomorrow.


"I want to say," Hopper declared in a quote from a 2008 exhibition catalogue, "that the myth that I started out as a photographer and painter before becoming an actor isn't true. I did it all simultaneously." That included collecting art.