Auction  May 11, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

Andy Warhol Marilyn Portrait Makes History with $195 Million Sale

Bonhams

Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967. Sheet measures 36 x 36 in. Published by Factory Additions, New York, printed by Aetna Silkscreen Products, Inc., New York. Estimated: $200,000-250,000.

Two of Andy Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe portraits have traveled the auction circuits this spring, making headlines. The unplanned duet has been one to watch, as the portraits started out with an eyebrow-raising $200 million difference between their estimated values.

Although Warhol made his first series of Monroe portraits shortly after her untimely death in 1962, he regularly returned to her visage throughout the rest of his life and career. Interestingly, he used a publicity shot from the 1953 film Niagara for all of his portraits of her.

At Christie’s, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) finally went under the hammer on May 9, smashing records as the headlining item alongside thirty-five other masterpieces from The Collection of Thomas and Doris Ammann.

Christie's.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, 1964. Acrylic and silkscreen on ink on linen. 40 x 40 in (101.6 x 101.6 cm). The Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation. Sold for $195,000,000.

Though the piece ultimately sold for less than the official $200 million presale estimate, it still managed to achieve a massive $195 million. As was anticipated by the auction house and onlookers, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn thus claimed the title of “most expensive twentieth-century work to sell at auction.”

All proceeds from the sale are scheduled to be donated to the collector’s foundation–an organization dedicated to “establishing support systems centered on providing healthcare and educational programs for children across the globe."

In contrast, Bonhams portrait, Marilyn (1967), is estimated to fetch just between $200,000 and $250,000 as the leading artwork of their May 12 Prints & Multiples Sale.

The event will mark this particular print’s first return to the public fray since it was purchased—along with a Campbell’s Soup—for about $600 in the 1980s. In a press release, Bonhams stated that “this version of Marilyn with bright blond hair, ice green eyeshadow, and red lips is considered one the artist’s most coveted examples.”

You might be wondering why such a large gap exists between the estimated costs of these two artworks. The level of involvement by Warhol in the printmaking process is undoubtedly a major factor, but a curious bit of history is also at play.

In September of 1964 at the Silver Factory, four in a new series of five massive portraits of Monroe were shot by a visiting artist named Dorothy Podber. According to the artist Jack Champlin, Podber meant shooting the Monroe portraits as “a piece of conceptual art.” It was also, purportedly, a play on words. According to Christie's, Champlin recalled that  “At some party, Andy said to Dorothy, 'Can I shoot you?' And she said, 'Sure, if I can shoot you.' And he said, 'Well, come up tomorrow.' She took him literally. It was really a piece of conceptual art. That’s what her life was about, playing games. Her life was a play on words." Needless to say, Podber was banned from the Silver Factory.

Wikimedia Commons.

Publicity portrait of Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis in the 1953 film Niagara.

Accounts of Warhol’s feelings on this act of violence and the fallout vary but the sensational mythos ultimately ensured the Shot Marilyns a legendary status and boosted value.

Additionally, though Warhol primarily used classic screenprinting techniques to easily and cheaply reproduce imagery, the artist created a new and complicated method of working that he used to produce the 1964 portraits.

After that, most of Warhol’s other Marilyns were produced via his print-publishing business, Factory Additions. In 1967, the artist began to create and release screenprint portfolios of his most signature pieces. He started with Marilyn and, in addition to twenty-six artist's proofs lettered A-Z, ultimately released a 250 edition print run. The Bonhams print is stamped 28/250 on the back.

It is remarkable how much history and variety surrounds Warhols’ many portraits of Monroe. Even decades after their creation, the artworks continue to make headlines and claim titles. It will be interesting to see how the May 12 auction plays out and what happens next to the Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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