(CNN)Andy Warhol‘s personal photographs from his trip to Beijing and Hong Kong in 1982 are arguably the most famous holiday snaps of all time.
And depending on how a May auction of the collection fares, they could soon be among the most valuable.
Warhol, who was one of the most famous people in the western world at the time of his visit, went largely unrecognized on the streets of Beijing. It makes the images even more remarkable, not least to collectors, who have come to view the set as a rare slice of history in the making.
The three-day trip saw the late pop art icon take his camera to sites including the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, where he came face-to-face with the portrait of Mao Zedong that had inspired his own colorful 1970s paintings and prints of the former leader.
Over 200 personal photos from Warhol’s China set will go under the hammer at a Phillips auction at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. The candid shots are currently on display at the hotel, to coincide with the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong.
Phillips’ associate director Charlotte Raybaud tells CNN the auction house is hoping to sell the set for over $1.1 million (HK$8.5 million).
“The photos capture his personality in a way that may even be more genuine and pure than the pictures he takes prior to this, because he came to Beijing and Hong Kong as a tourist,” she says.
But should the photos, a separate set to the more conventional images taken on the trip by Warhol’s traveling companion, photographer Christopher Makos, be considered high-art?
To some, like curator Jeffrey Deitch — who also accompanied Warhol for the Hong Kong leg of the trip — they represent great examples of the New Yorker’s artistic vision.
“Andy was not making art in a precious way,” he said. “It was so inside him — this unique vision of the world. They’re very strong images, not just random snapshots.”
To others, like Makos, the merit attributed to the photos by the Phillips auction is “ridiculous” and “nonsense.”
“[They were] snapshots. Andy was never thinking about the light and dark, he was hoping he had the settings right and that’s it,” says the photographer.
Warhol the tourist
Warhol traveled to Hong Kong at the invitation of Alfred Siu, a young local entrepreneur, who had commissioned Warhol to paint portraits of Princess Diana and Prince Charles for a new nightclub he was opening on the island.
Upon arrival, Siu surprised the artist by announcing he had arranged for him to visit Beijing — a city which was then still largely closed-off to foreigners.
And while Deitch and Makos continue to argue about the artistic value of Warhol’s photography, they agree that the trip across the border into the mainland was particularly special.
“Andy and I loved looking out and seeing a sea of blue or green outfits,” says Makos of his time in the Chinese capital.
“We thought it was chic, like Pierre Cardin or something. Women were starting to experiment with western clothing, and because they weren’t familiar with it they were such bad dressers, they didn’t know how to put things together.”
Locals in turn, were also curious about Warhol.
“People were fascinated by his look,” recalls Makos “Like, ‘Who is this?'”
The artist’s status as a regular tourist rather than a global celebrity is evidenced throughout the exhibition.
In one image, he is seen standing with a bellboy, likely in Beijing’s Peking Hotel in which he stayed. In others, he captures everyday holiday items such as buffet food and a beer bottle on a restaurant table.
“Andy was about the everyday, the mundane, creating, in an accumulated way, something of tremendous interest,” Deitch tells CNN.
Photographs from the “Warhol in China” collection are on display at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong from 20 March until 2 April. The photographs will be auctioned by Phillips on 28 May.