An iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol soared to $195 million at Christie’s in New York on Monday, the second-highest result for an artwork at auction and the biggest test of the masterpiece market since March 2020.
Falling stocks in every major sector, from banking to oil and gas, appear to have had minimal impact on bidding in Christie’s Rockefeller Center auction room. Nevertheless, the hammer total of $170 million for Warhol Blow Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) fell short of its unpublished estimate of $200 million.
After less than four minutes of bidding, the work was bought by mega-dealer Larry Gagosian in the auction room. He declined to say whether he bought the work for himself or for a client.
The picture was gifted with 35 other lots from the estate of Swiss brother dealers Thomas and Doris Ammann. In total, the sale raised $317.8 million, down from its estimate of $284 million to $420 million. Thirty-four lots out of 36 found takers.
In a way, the purchase of Gagosian marks a comeback. The painting had been in the Ammann collection since Gagosian himself sold it to Thomas “from my gallery on 23rd Street in 1986,” the dealer told Artnet News after the sale. “He didn’t even know it was in the gallery. He came to see something else, and he bought it on the spot.
The evening was the first event in a two-week, $2 billion bidding marathon, with more trophy art up for grabs than the market has seen in years. Testing the claim are a slew of Rothkos, Monets and Picassos as well as dozens of reverse works by young artists.
Marilyn’s result became the highest price for an American artist at auction, snatching the title from Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose untitled canvas of a skull sold for $110.5million five years ago years.
According to Christie’s, all proceeds from the sale of Ammann will benefit charities providing urgent medical and educational care to children. This represents largest philanthropic sale since the Rockefeller auction in 2018. The Warhol winner also has the opportunity to name the charities to which 20% of Marilyn product will be awarded, pending the approval of the foundation.
“I don’t think it’s about the stock market, this photo,” said Asher Edelman, who was a corporate raider before becoming an art dealer. “It’s about someone in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere who wants it for a museum. There are no more Russians, but there are others.
The most expensive painting ever sold is Leonardo DeVinci Salvator Mundiwhich earned $450.3 million in 2017. With a pre-sale estimate of $100 million, this work was less anticipated than the Marilynwhich was the highest estimated work ever sold at auction.
“It’s a unique chance to own this painting,” said Alberto Mugrabi, art dealer and descendant of the family that has the largest Warhol collection in private hands. “It’s the ultimate. There’s nothing bigger than that.
Warhol first painted Marilyn in 1962 on a smaller scale and returned to his famous and tragic muse twice during his career. The larger, more detailed format he created in 1964 is considered the most desirable subset of the motif, which is itself the most desirable in Warhol’s work.
Blow Sage Blue Marilyn is part of a series of five which also includes versions in red, orange and turquoise. Their title comes from an incident when performance artist Dorothy Podber shot the four stacked canvases with a gun right between Marilyn’s eyes. (Only one version, turquoise, was spared the onslaught.)
The Ammann siblings bought the painting from Condé Nast magnate and mega-collector Si Newhouse about 40 years ago.
The “Marilyn” series has a long market history. In 1998, Newhouse took over another version of the table — the orange one — for $17.3 million against a high estimate of $6 million. It was a watershed moment in the art industry, which had never seen such a sum spent at auction. After Newhouse’s death in 2017, billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin bought the work privately for around $200 million, according to people familiar with the deal.
Other paintings in the series belong to newsprint mogul Peter Brant (who bought the blue version for $5,000 in 1967), Steve Cohen (who bought the turquoise Marilyn for $80 million in 2007), and mogul Greek Philip Niarchos (who owns the red version) .
“I’ve talked to all the other guys who have these paintings and they’ll never sell them,” Mugrabi said, detailing various unprintable afflictions they’d rather have.
Brant attended the auction. When asked if he wanted to part with his Marilyn, he replied: “No way. Never.”
The painting was the final batch in the Ammann sale, an assortment of high and low, figurative and abstract, with a particular flair for appropriation art. It was a testament to the eclectic tastes of Thomas Ammann, who died in 1993, and Doris Ammann, who took over the gallery and ran it until her death a year ago. The total sale totaled $318 million, within the estimated range.
Strong results for 1980s works by white male artists, including Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Donald Baechler, Peter Halley and Ross Bleckner, challenged mainstream trends, which favored new figurative paintings, with particularly strong competition for the work of women and artists of color.
A small painting of three birds by Ann Craven, I wasn’t sorry (2003), also reached a record high of $680,400, beating the pre-sale estimate of $20,000–$30,000. A painting by Mike Bidlo, Pas Picasso (Bather with beach ball, 1932) (1987), which sold for a Picasso-like price of $1.3 million, tripled the artist’s auction record for conceptual appropriation.
Gagosian was an active buyer at the sale, buying two paintings by Cy Twombly for $16.9 and $21 million, and the pink sculpture by Franz West for $592,200.
But not all lots flew. A painting by Sigmar Polke, estimated between 1.5 and 2 million dollars, and an all-black Brice Marden, estimated between 5 and 7 million dollars, did not find a buyer.
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