Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe fetches top price ever paid for a 20th century artwork

[13 May 2022]

At Christie’s New York sale on 9 May, the famous portrait by Pop Art’s leading figure smashed all records for a work of 20th century art.

Warhol’s Shot sage blue Marilyn was offered in a Christie’s sale dedicated to works from the collection of the Zurich-based Foundation set up by the late art dealing siblings Thomas and Doris Ammann, just one of the major sales programmed in New York during May. Presented without a low price estimate or a guarantee, the result had to be “in the region of $200 million”, failing which it would be returned to its owner.

A relatively high level of risk surrounded the work’s sale, but in the end the masterpiece was acquired by the New York art dealer Larry Gagosian, even if the bidding didn’t go quite as high as was hoped.

While some of his works have already exceeded the $100 million mark (incl. fees), Andy Warhol now ranks ahead of Picasso and behind LEONARDO DA VINCI in terms of all-time art auction records. In the catalog, Alex Rotter, Christie’s Director of Modern, Post-War & Contemporary Art, described Shot Sage Blue Marilyn as “the most important painting to be offered at auction in a generation”, deserving its place “alongside Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and PICASSO’s Demoiselles d’Avignon: Warhol’s Marilyn is categorically one of the greatest paintings of all time.” Alex Rotter is familiar with master pieces: in November 2017, he sold Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (救世主) for $450 million, the all-time record price in art auction history.

President of the Ammann Foundation, Georg Frei was also keen to evoke the Mona Lisa analogy arguing that “Marilyn, the woman, is no more. All that remains is that enigmatic smile that links her to another mysterious smile: that of the Mona Lisa.

Shot Sage Blue Marilyn… the story of an exceptional work

Andy Warhol, Orange Marylin

Andy Warhol, Orange Marylin

This painting is the quintessence of Pop. It not only marks an important stage in Warhol’s career and in Contemporary Art, but also in Art History as a whole”, explains Johanna Flaum, Director of Christie’s International. She also pointed out that it was the first time in a quarter of a century that a Warhol Marylin was being offered for auction. True… while his multiples circulate massively on the market, his major works remain rare, offering collectors little opportunity to bid on one of his masterpieces.

The work’s exceptional provenance was also an important factor. The late Thomas and Doris Ammann were two very influential art dealers whose impact on Warhol’s legacy was immeasurable, notably through their contribution to the first catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works.

Shot Sage Blue Marilyn was acquired 40 years ago from Samuel Irving Newhouse, a famous art collector. At the time, he also owned a Orange Marilyn from the same series in bright orange, bought at Sotheby’s NY in 1998 for $17.3 million. The same work was subsequently acquired privately by billionaire Ken Griffin after Irving Newhouse’s death in 2017, probably for over $200 million.

Marilyn, a muse for Warhol, and for an entire era…

As Warhol himself said, I don’t feel I’m representing the main sex symbols of our time in some of my pictures, such as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor, I just see Monroe as just another person. As for whether it’s symbolical to paint Monroe in such violent colors: it’s beauty, and she’s beautiful and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colors, that’s all”.

Deeply touched by the actress’s death, he began to immortalize her face shortly afterwards. Based on a cropped publicity photograph for the film Niagara taken ten years earlier, Warhol ‘appropriated’ the image without authorization and without crediting the director Henry Hathaway. Measuring approximately one square meter, the silk-screen portrait in ink and acrylic on canvas has bright colors with slight color spills on the lips. The one acquired by Mr Gagosian has sage green background and belongs to a limited edition of five portraits, the “Shot Marilyns”, produced in 1964. The only other Shot Marilyn to have been auctioned was Shot Red Marilyn which sold for $4 million in 1989 then $3.6 million in 1994 at Christie’s New York.

These portraits owe their name to an episode that took place in Andy Warhol’s New York studio. The story goes that Andy Warhol naively accepted a request from performance artist Dorothy Podber to “shoot” the works, thinking that the young woman wanted to photograph them. Warhol succeeded in turning the incident to his advantage by adding one more story to the legends of Marilyn, of the Factory, of Pop Art and of ‘appropriation’, making the five canvases even more exceptional.

The Marilyns ‘manna’

Marilyn Monroe (Distorsion) Weegee

With no less than 3,104 Marilyns by the artist having sold at auction over the years, the subject never seems to go out of fashion. The prints, screenprints and painted works in various colors are all variants of one and the same image reproduced as an iconic emblem of Warhol’s work, but also of a whole period in American history. Among the best results from these works are the White Marilyn sold at Christie’s NY for over $29.8 million in 2014. More recently, on 15 November 2021, Nine Marilyns《瑪麗蓮・夢露九宮格》 was one of the major attractions in Sotheby’s first sale of the Macklowe Collection in New York, fetching $47.4 million.

More than fifty years after her death, the film star with blond curls retains the status of an icon, of ‘universal’ and ‘undisputed’ beauty, a figure who has inspired numerous artists. Among the best known – although they never fetch anything like the sums paid for Warhol’s productions – are more ‘classic’ works by Cecil BEATON and Bert STERN; or Weegee’s completely deformed Marilyn Monroe (Distorsion) or Vik Muniz’s « Marilyn Monroe (from Pictures of Diamond Dust) portrait of Marilyn Monroe which generated one of his best auction results. In short, Marilyn’s iconic beauty definitely sells!