Andy Warhol’s 1964 portrait of Marilyn Monroe sold for $195 million at Christie’s Monday night, becoming the most expensive work of American art ever sold.
The price suggests that the art market, at least at the very high end, is largely holding up to the pressures of falling stocks and rising interest rates. Christie’s and Sotheby’s plan to sell more than $2 billion worth of art in the next two weeks, and the historic price for the “Marilyn” could boost the confidence of wealthy buyers for other works.
While slightly below the $200 million estimate, and well below the $250 million to $300 million whisper prices many dealers had been hoping for, the sale is still seen as a vote of confidence for art as a long-term store of value amidst volatile market cycles. The buyer was not identified.
“This shows that quality and scarcity are always going to push the market forward,” said Andrew Fabricant, the chief operating officer of Gagosian galleries and a top dealer to the wealthy. “It will give a bump psychologically to everyone’s thinking.”
The Marilyn, known as “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” was one of five versions in different color schemes that Warhol painted in 1964, two years after Marilyn Monroe’s death. With its bright colors and captivating expression, the portraits became some of Warhol’s most iconic and famous images. An orange version recently sold to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin for over $200 million.
“It’s the Mount Everest of its era,” Fabricant said. “Everyone in the world when these paintings were made knew the story of Marilyn Monroe, the epic loss and the epic achievement. And Warhol himself was beginning to become an icon. So it’s two icons at their height.”
The portraits were based on a promotional photo of Monroe from the film “Niagara.” The portraits became even more famous when, shortly after they were completed, a woman walked into Warhol’s Factory studio with a gun and shot at a stack of four of them. The “sage blue” painting escaped damaged and the others were repaired. But the shooting added to their allure and became part of their titles.
The version sold Monday was owned by a Swiss art dealer family, the Ammanns, who have owned it since the early 1980s. The proceeds will go to charity. The Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation in Zurich said it will use the funds to support health and education programs for children worldwide.
Aside from breaking the record for the most expensive work of American art ever auctioned, it is the second-most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, behind Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” that sold at Christie’s in 2017 for $450 million and ahead of Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger,” which sold for $179 million in 2015.
Unlike most hyper-priced works sold at auction, “Marilyn” was not sold with a guarantee, which is a minimum price at which a third party or the auction house agrees to purchase the work. Dealers say the sellers wanted to maximize the charitable proceeds, and guarantees typically require sellers to give up some of the price upside above the guaranteed amount.
“This was a once-in-a-generation chance,” Fabricant said. “Pieces like this just don’t come around that often.”