One of the highlights of Andy Warhol’s long career as a printmaker were his portraits of international political leaders. In 1967, the Pop artist created the Flash portfolio, which depicted President John F. Kennedy. In 1972, he produced his famous Mao series — generally considered the most important political image of his career.
Other related portraits which were executed as prints include: Golda Meir (twice), Jimmy Carter (and his mother Lilian), Lenin, and Ted Kennedy. Interestingly, Warhol also produced paintings of Princes Diana and Prince Charles (but no corresponding graphics).
Warhol’s most notorious political print was titled, Vote McGovern (1972). It depicted a putrid blue/green-faced Richard Nixon with the caption, “Vote McGovern,” crudely written below Nixon’s face. The print, which was conceived as a fundraiser to support George McGovern’s presidential campaign, became an instant sensation. Allegedly, it so perturbed Nixon, that he ordered the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to audit Andy Warhol’s tax returns every year for the rest of his life (or at least that’s what Andy Warhol believed).
Which brings us to the Reigning Queens (1985). This royal collection of works depicted the ruling monarchs of their times: Queen Elizabeth II (England), Queen Beatrix (Netherlands), Queen Margrethe II (Denmark), and Queen Ntombi Twala (Swaziland). They were released in two portfolios: Reigning Queens and Reigning Queens (Royal Edition). The “Royal Edition” was covered in diamond dust.
Andy Warhol printed four different images of each queen. Each portfolio contained a total of sixteen prints. One distinguishing characteristic of both portfolios was their small edition size (40 for the regular edition, 30 for the Royal Edition). Typically, Andy Warhol also created a number of unique colour trial proofs. The Reigning Queens portfolios, which contained sixteen prints, were also Warhol’s largest portfolios.
When you examine the prints, the first thing you notice is how attractive Warhol made his subjects. For that matter, all of Warhol’s portraits (especially his commissioned portrait paintings), were extremely flattering to the sitter. Andy Warhol was a master at making everyone beautiful. He had a knack for exaggerating his subject’s best features, while minimising any flaws. As Andy once said, “If everyone isn’t beautiful, then no one is.”
The next thing you’re struck by is the scale of each work. The Reigning Queens all measure approximately 39” x 31.” When framed, they make an impressive statement.
It’s worth noting that unlike other important printmakers, including Robert Rauschenberg and David Hockney, Andy Warhol kept the size of his prints relatively modest. Knowing Warhol’s keen sense for marketing, you assume he was aware of how well his works would fit into the average New York apartment.
The most sought after image from Reigning Queens is Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen has always been a controversial figure. While beloved by part of the British population, she also has her share of detractors — who accuse her of being out of touch. As you might guess, a little controversy never hurts the value of a work of art.
Given the large number of English art collectors — and London’s position as one of the world’s major art centres — Queen Elizabeth II is by far the most valuable print in the group of four.
2022 has been one of the most significant years for Queen Elizabeth, given her Platinum Jubilee celebration in June, and the loss of Her Majesty in September. It is almost certain that these prints will explode in value over the next few months. While time will only tell, these prints currently sell for high prices at auction and in private sales.
It’s not uncommon to see individual prints being offered from £100,000-£200,000. While these prices place them in the upper echelon of the Warhol's graphics, you sense the Queen Elizabeth prints still have a ways to go.
In recent months, Queen Elizabeth prints have shot up in price selling for between £250,000-£400,000. The stand out sale of the past six months was in July 2022 for a Queen Elizabeth II from the Royal Edition, where it realised £403,200 at Christie’s in London.
Queen Beatrix and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark remain less sought after than Queen Elizabeth, because these monarchs are not as well known to the general public. Yet, these prints are both visually attractive and decorative (in the best sense), and offer good value. They’re also indicative of what’s been happening in the Andy Warhol market in general.
Over the years, Andy Warhol had produced hundreds of commissioned portrait paintings. Many of them portrayed wealthy individuals who were obviously known to their immediate friends and family, but not the rest of the world. Until recently, these 40” x 40” paintings had minimal value. But lately, their prices have been creeping up. That’s because collectors have realised that they can buy a substantial Andy Warhol canvas for approximately £200,000.
Portraits of celebrities and famous artists bring much more. A correlation can be drawn between these anonymous portraits and the value offered by the prints Queen Beatrix and Queen Margrethe II.
The sleeper in the group of Reigning Queens is Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland. Although she's the least recognisable sovereign in the portfolio, her profile has probably been raised by a recent trend in the art market; growing interest in Black art. Over the last five years, there’s been an increasing chorus of voices calling for greater diversity in the art world. This has been particularly true of the pressures museums have faced to tell a more inclusive story of Post-War art history.
As a result, it wouldn’t surprise me if the print departments at various institutions will look into acquiring prints made by Black artists or images that depict Africans and African-American figures. By buying Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland, they can also purchase an Andy Warhol to boot.
There’s no way of knowing how many Reigning Queens portfolios were broken up and how many remain intact. Even though I generally advocate for buying complete portfolios (if you can afford it), in this case I can more easily envision collecting “your favourite queen” or a group of all four images. A room filled with one on each wall would be spectacular.
Philosophically, Warhol’s love of royalty and celebrities comes through clearly in this body of work. When viewed in this context, the Reigning Queens are an important part of Warhol’s work and will be seen in the future as ranking higher in Warhol’s oeuvre.