Which Johns Flag to Salute


Less than two years has passed since the bestselling author Michael Crichton lost his unfortunate battle with throat cancer. Famous worldwide for his science fiction and medical thrillers, Crichton’s love of modern and contemporary art was less well known—but not that less well known, as attested in the auction catalogue by LACMA’s Michael Govan and Steven Spielberg. This evening Christie’s will auction 31 lots from his collection, including works by such masters as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and his long-time friend, Jasper Johns.

Indeed it is Johns’ Flag (1960–1966, pictured left), featured on the auction catalogue’s cover, which will draw the most interest due to its estimate of $10–15 million. It’s the only work in the sale estimated to bring eight figures.

According to Christie’s catalogue note, Flag is “one of only a handful of paintings by Johns that stays true to his original iconic image of the single flag in red, white and blue.” As if to instill in potential buyers a further sense of uniqueness or rarity, Christie’s goes on to describe how “Johns painted the work in encaustic, a difficult and seldom-used technique that dates back to the ancient Egyptians.”

Flag is a rare work indeed; the only other two encaustic works from the peer group of flag paintings came to market in 1988 and 2004, and fetched $7,040,000 and $4,488,000, respectively. The entire peer group of flag paintings, which includes several oil-on-canvas works, has an average price of just over $6.5 million.

Though Flag will certainly capture most of the attention from the press and market observers, it is not the only flag by Johns to be auctioned this evening. Flags I (ULAE 128) (pictured below), a 1973 screenprint in colors is, according to Christie’s catalogue, “number fifty-four from an edition of sixty-five plus seven artist’s proofs.” It is estimated to sell for $300,000–400,000. Six works make up the peer group for Flags I (ULAE 128), including one which was bought in at Christie’s last October; their average price has been $518,460.

The language Christie’s uses in the respective catalogue notes definitely suggests that there should be a difference in valuation between these two works. These works come from the same collection, so provenance is irrelevant, aside perhaps from the fact that Crichton purchased Flag directly from Jasper Johns whereas Flags I (ULAE 128) was purchased from a dealer three years after its creation.

The truly interesting question is whether these two works are appropriately priced and whether they present a reasonable investment opportunity. For Flag, the middle estimate ($12,500,000) is nearly double the average price for works in its peer group, which suggests that Christie’s has already factored into its estimate a considerable level of irrational premium, i.e., the excess amount of money a potential buyer may be willing to spend beyond the fair market value. As iconic as Johns’ flag paintings are, the one resale in the group—Two Flags (1973)—earned a –6.47% return when it was resold at Christie’s in 1999 after nearly 10 years of ownership. For Flags I (ULAE 128), the difference between the estimate for this evening’s sale and the average value of the peer group stated above should provide a good indication of that work’s real value.