The World’s Most Expensive Urinal

I don’t imagine this will be of interest to everyone but I find the subject endlessly fascinating. This is my fall contemporary art auction report. These auctions were held two weeks ago here in New York at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Prior to the auctions, you can visit the galleries and view the lots for free. It’s important to take it in because after the auction, they pass into private collections, never to be seen again.

My last post ended with a cliff-hanger so why don’t we address that first?

Robert Gober
Three Urinals
Estimate: $3,500,000 – $4,500,000
Lot Sold: $3,525,000

gober_urinal_sm I checked my local hardware store and you can get three urinals for about $1,000. I should have peed in one and said I was making an artistic statement and demand payment for my “work.”

I really like Francis Bacon. I came around to him rather late in life. Better late than never. It doesn’t say so explicitly in the title but this is a Pope. Or a Cardinal. I forget which.

Francis Bacon
Seated Figure
Estimate: $40,000,000 – $60,000,000
Lot Sold: $44,965,000

baconWarhol + Harry = LOVE IT. Warhol used metallic paint for many of these celeb paintings and the accent colors really POP when you see them in person. This was also signed by Debbie Harry. I wonder if that played into its value? [Fun fact: Debbie is performing her first show as a cabaret artist in the legendary Café Carlyle this spring. Yup. It’s come to that.]

Andy Warhol
Debbie Harry
Estimate: $2,500,000 – $3,500,000
Lot Sold: $3,077,000

Warhol_harryFor a long time, my least favorite artist was Jean-Michel Basquiat. I still don’t like his work (I’ll keep trying) but Robert Gober is my new least-favorite artist. He’s a charlatan, a fake and a flim-flam man. See that piece on the wall next to his urinal? Guess what that is?

drain1It’s this.

Robert Gober
Estimate: $300,000 – $500,000
Lot Sold: $293,000

drain2aThat’s it, folks. A drain stuck in the wall. A $293,000 drain. What a fraud.

Here are the two monsters. The ones that made it to the front page of The New York Times the next morning.

Andy Warhol
Triple Elvis [Ferus Type]
Estimate Upon Request
Lot Sold: $81,925,000

Andy Warhol
Four Marlons
Estimate Upon Request
Lot Sold: $69,605,000

warholEstimate Upon Request means they ain’t fucking around. There was a bench situated in front of these and I sat and stared for a while. Little did I suspect that I was looking at $150,000,000 worth of artwork.

This one was in the paper as well because it sold well beyond its pre-auction estimate. The peculiar thing is that unlike the oversized, big-ticket Warhols and Rothkos, this was a relatively small piece measuring just 11 5/8″ x 17 1/2″ (29.5 x 44.4 cm). I don’t mind it. It was vibrant. But not for that much.

Jasper Johns
Estimate: $15,000,000 – $20,000,000
Lot Sold: $36,005,000

johnsThis piece is huge. It measures 112 x 142 x 66 in. (284.5 x 360.7 x 167.6 cm). You don’t think this is supposed to be a gigantic…naaaa…no way.

Robert Morris
Vetti V
Estimate $150,000 – $200,000
Did Not Sell

morrisAnd speaking of Did Not Sell…this piece is from Damien Hirst, the fella who brought us a giant great white shark in a tank of formaldehyde and paintings made from butterfly wings.

Damien Hirst
Dog Days
Estimate: $500,000 – $700,000
Did Not Sell

hurst1Would you like to know what’s on all those shelves? It’s these:

hurst2I consider El Anatsue a bit of a genius. He’s a Ghanaian sculptor who makes these beautiful, flowing wall pieces. The Brooklyn Museum exhibited his work a couple of years ago and I still haven’t caught my breath.

El Anatsue
Man’s Cloth II
Estimate: $700,000 – $1,000,000
Lot Sold: $989,000

anatsui1Here’s what his pieces are constructed of:

anatsui2He collects thousands of aluminum bands from wine and beer bottles and painstakingly connects them using copper wire. He’s very intentional about the distribution of color and texture. His work shimmers.

I’ve always been a fan of Mark Rothko and this is one of the best pieces I’ve ever seen by him. I stood there and just let it wash over me. Sometimes, bigger IS better.

Mark Rothko
No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange)
Estimate Upon Request
Lot Sold: $44,965,000

rothkoPart of what fascinates me about these auctions is just how subjective they are and how some super-wealthy people can be talked into liking works with questionable merits. This is by Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei, who I’m actually a fan of, but maybe not so much in this instance. It’s a pile of…

Ai Weiwei
He Xie
Estimate: $600,000 – $800,000
Lot Sold: 605,000

wiwi1…porcelain crabs, of course..

wiwi2I’d been indifferent towards Adolph Gottlieb’s work, neither liking nor disliking it, but I turned a corner and was gobsmacked with this. The photo is inadequate. It’s the perfect balance of color and shape, one playing off the other. I love when this happens. When an artist’s intent is suddenly revealed to you. I’ll have to reconsider my indifference.

Adolph Gottlieb
Red and Blue
Estimate: $2,000,000 – $3,000,000
Lot Sold: $2,165,000

gottliebI’ve got a few more but I’ll stop with this lot. I think it’s an appropriate coda. It’s by Christopher Wool and even though he didn’t title it, I think we can surmise from the content, what someone paid for it and the overall spirit of these auctions what the title should be.

Christopher Wool
Estimate: $12,000,000 – $18,000,000
Lot Sold: $14,165,000


Bonus Track. I accidentally took this while walking through Sotheby’s. I flipped the pic 180° and like the effect. I look like I’m walking towards myself. How meta.

Estimate Upon Request.



82 thoughts on “The World’s Most Expensive Urinal

  1. Oh, I like that flowing wall sculpture from the aluminum bands.

    Drain? Really? My first response to what I thought it was is not as PG as Drain but would have made more sense in a pretentious, artsy way. Especially near the urinals.

  2. Awesome tour Mark. Amazing. I have to tell you, I cracked up laughing when i saw the drain.I like the alminum band construction. if i had the money and wanted to invest in art, I’d likely buy that one. The Vetti V looks like a vagina in passing – although that could be like a Rorschach test – no meaning except what i give it. The two legs with shoes is an awesome piece (Ha!). The crab piece is reminiscent of Replicators – evil little critters that are trying to take over the universe in a sci-fi series here in Canada called SG-1. Good series. Excepting the urinals, the rest of the peices all have some redeeming aspects that merit consideration. The Warhol is striking.

    Excellent tour Mark – I really appreciate it as i am not likely to ever get a chance to see it. Thank You.

    As an aside, I just finished another guest post over at Cordelia’s Mom. I’d be honored if you had the time to drop by for a read Thank you sir.

    • Morris did a series of those wall hangings that look suspiciously vaginal to me. I could be off the mark. Georgia O’Keeffe was furious when people interpreted her floral close-ups as lady parts. That could be the case here, as well.

      I just caught your weekly coffee klatch post over at Willowdot21. I do every Sunday! I’ll pay a visit to Cordelia’s Mom in the a.m. The New York Giants pre-game is about to start and I wouldn’t give it the attention it deserves.

  3. It appears some people have too much money-I am not one of them & if I was I would not be buying urinals no matter who touched it, used it or did anything with it.

    • It’s crazy, right? That’s why I put it all out here. Wealth is no barometer of good taste, that’s for damn sure.

      We had a dinner guest tonight. The fourth of four. It was very, very nice. Her new car a grand improvement over the old one.

  4. Maybe I just don’t get it, but I think anybody who would shell out that much money for things like these needs to spend some time as a homeless person or go to a third-world country and live among those in need. They need a new perspective. Think of what that money could do. I can’t even wrap my head around it.

    • Yeah, it’s a good thing they didn’t give all that money to poor people. They’d have just wasted it on stupid stuff, like food and shelter.

      This is part of the voyeuristic fascination for me. How do they talk them into spending that kind of money on “art?” Even the pieces I love are *ahem* overpriced, to say the least.

      • Even if I had the money of Bill Gates, I’d be embarrassed to write a check for that amount for pieces of art, regardless of what it looked like. Weird.

      • My theory is that they live in a vacuum, surrounded by sycophants, hangers-on, suck-ups and yes-men, telling them what constitutes ‘good taste’ and them falling for it hook, line and sinker. What other explanation can there possibly be? A drain. What a bunch of idiots.

      • My theory is that they see these…ummm, objects of art… go up in price at least 10% every year, and buy them as an investment; that is, to sell to another billionaire hoping to make a profit. I’m sure both our theories can hold simultaneously for different people.

      • That’s a very astute observation. I’m convinced that many of these purchases are propelled by a desire to park their wealth in something that will increase in value. They might see the work as being as ridiculous and pretentious as we do.

  5. Thanks for sharing all these, Mark. My reactions: The crabs are the most creepy, the aluminium cloth the most stunning, although the Rothko and the Bacon are close contenders. The award for most gross goes to Dog Days, I can smell them from here, the urinals and the drain are stupid but I fancy the Christopher Wool for my office – it would go down a treat.

    • That’s a very concise and thorough review. Thanks for taking the time! The crabs were just sitting in the middle of the floor. It wouldn’t have taken any effort at all to walk on them. And as I said in the post, that Rothko is a beauty. He used just the right pitch of black. Just look at the money that was dumped on these works. It’s sad, in a way. Or maybe I’m just jealous.

      • I suspect having that kind of money brings not only “helpers and advisors” but a massive case of entitlement. Much as the Wool appeals to my sense of humour, and I know I’d redecorate my house around that Rothko (as if it would ever be hung in an ordinary house on an ordinary wall like mine!) I’d never be able to or, for that matter, want to spend the millions required. There’s so much else out there – like you said – food and shelter for others would be a place to start.

      • You and I can sit on our lofty perch amd deem that the money should be better spent elsewhere. But we’ll never know what we’d actually do if all that money was in our hands. Money changes everything. Could even strip us of common sense.

      • You think money works like power – absolute money corrupts absolutely? I don’t suppose I’d be any more immune to that than the next person. But the idea that I’d be buying up urinals and drains is more than a little bizarre. At least I don’t have to find out for sure.

  6. There’s beauty in the batch and there’s crap in the batch. Some take my breath away and some just piss me off. It doesn’t really matter which because that’s just personal taste. You aready know which two are pure shit in my book, anyway, Mark. Same as yours. More importantly … Somebody, somewhere would pay five figures to buy a framed shot of your shoes if you marketed it right. Just saying.

    • While none of it is worth the amount that was paid, I did want to feature pieces that I felt hand true artistic merit along with pieces that were just a scam. The subjectiveness of it all is really what entertains. You are correct. It’s all a matter of taste.

  7. you’re right, money changes everything. BUT, if it ever changed me into someone who could write a check for 3,525,000USFUCKINGDOLLARS for urinals, hand to god, i would hope one of y’all would slap the taste outta my mouth! xoxoxox (all that aside, great summation of the auction, sweet pea!)

  8. I love these reviews… And agree with the comments about buying a drain. Really?

    I have a friend who runs a contemporary gallery and I am going to ask her what she thinks the next time I see her.

    • Ba-da-dum. I’m here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.

      ‘Either piece,’ meaning the drain and urinals, I assume? Are there any pieces that you do like or is it all garbage to you which, by the way, is a perfectly valid response?

      • I meant all the pieces in this post. My views on art are much more backward than yours, and I see a lot of modern art (from early 20th century stuff like Duchamp and Kandinsky) as more gimmick than art. Speaking of Duchamp, now there’s a guy who’s been selling bathroom equipment as “art” nearly 100 years ago.

      • You’re right! It’s that son-of-a-bitch Duchamp that started all this nonsense with his stupid ready-mades. Before him, you actually had to know a thing or two about painting in order to be an artist. Now, anyone can apply for the job. Even a plumber.

  9. Debbie Harry doing a cabaret show at the Cafe Carlyle.

    That depresses me immensely. Now you understand why I worship Patti Smith. She’s 61, but still plays rock shows. If she put together a cabaret act, I think I’d shoot myself.

    I love that you called Gober a fake, a charlatan AND a flim-flam man. He’s so bad, it had to be repeated in triplicate!

    A drain and three urinals. I’m sure I have a toilet plunger around here somewhere. If only I was a famous artist…

    • I know where Debbie Harry got the idea to do a cabaret act. David Johanssen has played the Carlyle for a few years now in his guise as Buster Poindexter. She probably figured, if it good enough for him, etc. Do you remember those two New York Dolls albums? Christ, they were so badass. Patti Smith is playing Webster Hall on New Years Eve again this year. But you probably already knew that.

      Finally, a bit of self-promotion. If you get a minute, read the post prior to this one. It’s another of my big wet kisses to our old stomping grounds. Have Kleenex ready.

      • But Buster Poindexter IS a lounge act! So it’s different.

        Patti is playing on December 30th- her birthday. I went last year with my college friends. It was an insane night- one that took me THREE days to recover from. If I go, it won’t be with those troublemakers!

    • Did you see his exhibit of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds? He covered the floor of the turbine hall at the Tate Modern in London with them. Initially, people were allowed to walk through them but as they were being crushed, it produced a cloud of porcelain dust that they didn’t count on so they stopped allowing people on them. You could just look. Fantastic.

  10. “Plughole” is a more accurate word for that “drain”, but maybe that’s British English. If someone stuck a plug in it, that would be a profound artistic statement worth $50,000 in my estimation. Maybe you could make some money by taking a photo called “Plugging of the drain”. I think the best way of thinking of these items, in economic terms, is high denomination dollar bills.

    • Plughole, drain, what’s the diff? It’s nothing but a big money suck for people who, I would argue, are TOO wealthy. That’s a lot of bananas. And does he come to your home and install it in your wall for you? Can he clear a clogged pipe while he’s at it?

  11. It’s good that you keep us in touch. I like to play a shop window game: you can have just one item which would it be? Can’t decide between Debbie, Elvis or Marlon. Boringly predictable?

    • You, my dear, are anything but boringly predictable. You want those Warhols because they’re fun to behold. Nothing wrong with that! There was also a fabulous Warhol of Liz Taylor that sold for about $38M. You’d have like that, as well. I, myself, am going with either Debbie Harry or the Rothko. Can I have two?

  12. I got really excited seeing Debbie Harry… I loved her. Adored her. And then that drain thing… holy crap. I guess this is chic built upon reputation; artistic merit constructed on blocks of drooling patronage. What else explains this ‘vision’?

    The urinals I’d been waiting for… these aren’t the urinals you’re looking for… hell, it’s early. And outside it’s sleazy and Christmas-lighty. The El Anatsue piece really caught my eye, as did your shoes of course. And I wonder about the Warhols… am I making myself sound ridiculous in saying that I don’t see anything in those? Nothing of real merit? Art is subjective. It’s a confection, occasionally fast food, once in a while a great meal that you even made yourself, but sometimes it’s just vomit. Fools! Yup.

    • Can you imagine seeing Debbie in a small cabaret setting? I actually think it’ll be pretty great and is not a step down at all. I saw her about three years ago and her voice is kind of shot. Or, it was on that night. No matter. I’d love to see her again. God, she was beautiful, wasn’t she? She slept with Joey Ramone. He admitted it on Howard Stern and she never refuted it. Talk about beauty and the beast!

      Re: the Warhols. You are in good company. There are many, many who still insist that Warhol was a bit of a fraud. By that time in his career, his studio assistants were producing most of the work under his direction. You’d be surprised how much that goes on. All those giant Jeff Koons sculptures are done by assistants.

      • I don’t think that’s a step down for her at all – I can totally see that. Anyway, if that’s a step down for her, that’s nothing compared to the size of the step that I would have to take to even get that far… it’s all relative. But she was so bloody gorgeous back in the day, I couldn’t get my eyes off her. Didn’t know the thing about Joey Ramone, but I’m not surprised.

        I feel guilty about the Warhol stuff… I feel I should get it, but never do. Had no idea that the assistants do that much work… I wonder what it would be like if I got assistants to do my writing for me. Put in that way, definitely seems fraudulent.

  13. Firstly, LOVE Debbie Harry, did back then, still do now. Such a cool chick.

    I actually have nothing but admiration for people like drain guy, I mean good for him if he can get away with that. He’s not hiding what it is, he’s not saying “I’ve got an amazing piece of art and if you want it you have to pay me a ton of money first, and THEN you get to see it.” No, people get to see it first and if they choose to pay a ton of money for it, then that’s their choice, they know what they’re getting. Something is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it right? As has been said in other comments, often I’m sure people buy these things as investments rather than because they like it. Is that any worse than someone who invests in say gold, that they never actually get to see or appreciate, and equally can, and does, go down as well as up in value?

    • I love Debbie Harry too and don’t mind one bit that she’s doing cabaret. It’s not like she’s playing some dump. The Café Carlyle has an old, rich history. Plus it’s expensive. I can’t afford to go! So at least she’s aiming high.

      I see your point but don’t necessarily agree. He reminds me of those southern preachers with the big pompadours preying on the weak minded. What he’s doing isn’t illegal, but there’s something unseemly about it. And for the clear-thinkers, can you imagine buying something you don’t respect in the hopes you can sell it for more later? There are better ways.

  14. Thanks for the art tour. What I enjoy, besides the glimpses and the prices and the “holy crap” factor is that you’re not just a crank. I mean, you are kind of a crank but you’re not JUST a crank… You know and appreciate art and its place in the world and in our souls, so I tend to trust your judgment. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful perspective.

    • Thanks for that, sir. When it comes to art or wine or literature etc., etc., it’s all subjective. There’s no one opinion more valid than anyone else’s. Viva democracy! I love Scott’s opinion above. That works for me!

      I beg your pardon but I am a complete and total crank. I worked bloody hard for that distinction and I won’t let you diminish it.

  15. i love these posts! a glimpse into a world i know nothing about, written with a balance of appreciation and mockery – as it should be! also love the El Anatsue piece! It is stunning at the macro, and micro, level – and to me is a creation of something beautiful and captivating from nothing, and that is (to me) what art should be…

    • The Anatsue stuff is impressive for how it fills up a room, but also for the amount of painstaking labor that goes into each one. I saw an exhibit of his work at The Brooklyn Museum and it made you wonder how someone has the time to assemble these huge curtains out of tiny bits of debris. The physical act is what’s so mind blowing.

  16. Excellent Mark — I do enjoy these strolls around the upmarket New York galleries.

    I once wrote in the visitor’s book for an artist whose work I thought was utterly childish and unimaginative, congratulating him for having cracked into that exclusive club where you can paint any old shite and get paid large sums of money for it. I kept meaning to go back to the gallery to see what reactions it might provoke but Ye Olde Laziness prevented me from doing so.

    I’ve got a Mark Rothko calendar for 2009 which I bought for the girls’ mum as a Christmas present, but then found out that she’d bought herself the exact same calendar. However, I discovered that the days falls exactly the same in 2015 so it’ll go on the wall six years late, in a month’s time. It was a bit cheaper than 45 million dollars.

    • How does one get to be upmarket, anyway? I don’t think talent or vision is the single most important element. It think you have to have a good head for business, which, truth be told, most artists don’t have. I think you need good representation.

      Ye Olde Laziness is something I’ve suffered with my whole life. Don’t feel bad about it.(I get the impression you don’t.) I’m not motivated to do a damn thing, really. I admire the way you conduct your affairs. No ticking traps for you.

      Those Rothko’s are really nice in person. I remember going to an exhibit where a series of his paintings were mounted in a small, dimly lit room. There was a bench in the middle. It was a meditative experience. You sat down and really got lost in the colors and shapes. That’s when I started liking him proper.

  17. Thanks — and no, being truly lazy is a fine art and on in which I am glad that I am at last achieving some modest success.

    I do like Rothko, but he’s very over-exposed nowadays.

    • I agree on him being overexposed. It used to be Monet. There used to be a single-minded focus on his work. It’s not like he’s disappeared from the landscape but people seem to have moved on to obsessing about other artists.

    • This is fantastic stuff. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. How did you stumble across it? Do you use the BBC as your primary news source? I’m still steamed that you can’t post comments from your reader. This’ll probably require another check to be written to some half-baked coder.

      • This came from my Facebook feed, that I mock so much. And these occasionally interesting articles is one of the reasons I still use Facebook.

  18. I just got my computer back last night, so I’m catching up with your posts! Oh my god, this is wild. A bunch of crab shells? A drain? C’mon! Oh, how can I be an artist? It doesn’t seem that hard, right? I would love to go see something like this and hear what people say. What did people say about the drain? I mean, does anyone try having an intellectual conversation about it? What would you say? Why did he choose that drain? That shape? Tell me what they say! Art with big splotches of color always seem rather simple like throwing paint on a canvas, but I’m sure there must be so much more. The weaved aluminum bands looks really impressive, but the Flag and what is that Morris piece? The money thrown at this stuff could feed whole countries! This is really crazy.

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