The self-portrait, one of five produced by the pop artist a year before his death, was described by his dealer as too prophetic.
It will not exactly cheer up the living room – even his dealer thought it too scary – but this huge, ghostly image of a purple Andy Warhol in his fright wig, produced a year before his death, will be one of the highlights of the next big series of auction sales.
Sotheby's has exhibited key works in London ahead of their sale in New York next month. The lessons of recent auctions has been that, yes, the recession is having an effect on sales but there are still mega-rich buyers willing to pay extraordinary amounts for works that are almost impossible to get hold of. "The market is very discriminating and informed," said Sotheby's head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer. "It wants masterpieces, it wants things that are not replaceable."
One man persuaded that the time is right to sell is fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford, owner of the Warhol. The self-portrait, valued at $10-15m (£6.5-9.7m) and about 2.7 sq metres, was produced in 1986 and even his dealer Anthony D'Offay was taken aback by it.
"When D'Offay saw the paintings he said they were too scary, too prophetic. He was worried about Warhol not being well," said Meyer. As it turned out, Warhol died unexpectedly the following year. "Don't see it as a self-portrait, see it as a disaster painting. This is a ghost."
There are five in the series. The yellow, blue and green ones are in museums and the privately-owned red one is unlikely to come to market any time soon.
Other works exhibited in London included a 1961 Mark Rothko red – the colour he is most associated with – being sold with an estimate of $18-25m. Meyer called it one of Rothko's best reds. "I've known this painting for 15 years and followed it over those years and I always adored the depth of the red. I've rarely seen a Rothko of this intensity. Although you think the two colours are identical they're not and the more time you spend with the painting the more you see the incredible, complex, spiritual details."
The impressionist and modern side to the spring sales are also strong with works by Matisse, Modigliani, Monet and Picasso. The Matisse – Bouquet pour le 14 Juillet 1919 – could fetch one of the highest prices, although it is estimated at $18-25m. Painted shortly after the first world war when Matisse was depressed, it is an optimistic statement of his intent to paint in the future.
The sales are the next big test of the art market since February sales in London when a Giacometti walking man sculpture became the most expensive artwork sold at auction, bought for £65m.
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