Andy Warhol, “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” (1964), acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 40 x 40 inches (image courtesy Christie’s)

If there’s one thing art buyers love, it’s paying lots of money for Andy Warhol paintings — and their passion only grows over time, as proven by a Monday night sale of “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” (1964) for a record-breaking $195 million — the most ever shelled out for a 20th-century artwork at auction. Christie’s sale marked the kickoff of the spring auction season, one that promises to be particularly lively as the market for global commodities fluctuates wildly due to political instability and the ongoing public health crisis.

Christie’s came close to realizing its prediction of a $200 million sale of the work, proceeds of which will benefit the new Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation Zürich, described in a press release as “dedicated to improving the lives of children the world over by establishing support systems centered on providing healthcare and educational programs.” This forms part of the legacy left by the Ammann siblings, who headed a Zürich-based gallery since the late 1970s, with Doris remaining at the helm until her death last year at the age of 76.

“Andy Warhol’s picture of Marilyn, surely now more famous than the photograph (an original publicity still for the 1953 film Niagara by Henry Hathaway) on which it is based, bears witness to her undiminished visual power in the new millennium,” said Georg Frei, chairman of the board at the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation, in a press release.

The winning bid of $195,040,000 was placed by Larry Gagosian on behalf of an unnamed buyer for this work in the Shot Marilyns series — so called for the participation of East Village performance artist Dorothy Podber. Visiting Warhol at the Factory, his New York studio, one day in 1964, Podber asked him if she could “shoot” a stack of Warhol’s newly-finished Marilyn Monroe silkscreens. Naturally, Warhol assumed Podber wanted to photograph them — not shoot them with a pistol, which is what she did. Despite Podber’s major contributions to the now record-breaking work, she is rarely described as a collaborator, much less a co-author of the paintings, as art historian Hall W. Rockefeller argues in a recent op-ed for Hyperallergic.

“The act of mock-assassination, shooting the image of Marilyn Monroe between the eyes, comments on the rabidity — and sometimes violence — of celebrity worship, and Monroe’s own death by fame-induced suicide two years before adds eerie depth to Podber’s performance piece,” Rockefeller wrote. “However, Podber’s intervention lives on only in the titles of the four works: ‘Shot Sage Marilyn,’ ‘Shot Orange Marilyn,’ etc.” 

Though Warhol created numerous works featuring Monroe’s iconic image, including “Nine Marilyns,” a nearly seven-foot-tall, black-and-white silkscreen from 1962, only four works reflect Podber’s intervention, making them extremely rare. “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” is additionally distinguished by a more detailed and demanding screen printing method Warhol developed and subsequently abandoned for being too time-consuming after creating a small number of the Marilyn portraits, according to Christie’s press release.

All these factors likely contributed to the work’s staggering sale price, now eclipsing the previous record of $110.5 million for a 20th-century work, paid in 2017 for a skull painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold by Sotheby’s. “Blue Marilyn” also ranks among the most expensive artworks to ever sell at auction, according to Christie’s — second only to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which fetched a low-key $450 million in 2017.

Surely Warhol would be disappointed not to take top spot, but if the ultra-rich continue to hoard wealth at a fast enough rate, it’s possible that his work will sell for even more money than an original Leonardo before the poor rise up in revolution or the surface of the planet becomes unlivable. How exciting!

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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