Christie’s unveiled on Monday what could become the most expensive 20th-century artwork ever to sell at auction. And the work in question is familiar to even casual art observers at first glance, but the fact it is coming up for sale at all is set to have the art world in a tizzy.
Described by a Christie’s chairman as one of the most iconic and transcendent images of the 20th century, Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is estimated to sell for at least $200 million, serving as the house’s marquee item up for auction this spring.
Speaking to the press at the unveiling on Monday morning in New York City, Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman for 20th- and 21st-century art, declared it to be “one of the most significant paintings to come to auction in a generation.”
“She represents more than Warhol. She stands along the most famous and most recognizable portraits not only of her time but of art history,” Rotter said—while acknowledging he was “going big here”—suggesting Warhol’s portraits of Monroe are as familiar worldwide as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
“These paintings, and this particular painting, symbolize everything that is relevant for us in the 20th century, everything that was relevant for Warhol,” Rotter said. “The beauty, also the tragedy that comes with it—it’s all part of it, it’s all in her, and we all feel it. This painting is 60 years old. Do you really feel like you’re standing in front of a 60-year-old painting? It has something, she has something, which is unique.”
In 1962, Warhol commenced his series of Monroe portraits. The series is especially significant as Warhol didn’t typically return to the same subjects. But in fact, there are actually five versions of Warhol’s 40-inch by 40-inch square paintings of Monroe, each in a different shade. Also out of the ordinary, Warhol used different techniques for each image. The last one that came up for sale, the orange edition, sold for $17 million in 1998. The sage version, now up for auction with Christie’s, was painted in 1964. And with the sage edition, Warhol used a screening technique that he never used again as, Rotter noted, it was too complicated and time-consuming to replicate.
“Warhol was about working fast, working on serial images, and depicting what surrounded him, what he thought was important, what he thought was relevant,” Rotter explained. “So for Warhol to come back years later after the first series and to do Marilyn again, it shows what Marilyn meant to him, and now what Marilyn means to us.”
All of the proceeds will be donated to charity, benefiting the Thomas and Doris Ammann Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland, the same organization that enlisted Christie’s to sell the painting. Although the Ammann siblings have long been prominent figures in the art world, the foundation itself is new, with the goal of setting up and funding causes supporting children’s health and education within the next three to six years, funded in part by the sale of Warhol’s Marilyn portrait.
The sale is expected to take place this spring. The painting will remain at Christie’s location in New York’s Rockefeller Center for the next week, accommodating by-appointment viewings so that members of the public can see it. The painting will then go on a brief world tour. Citing ever-looming and changing travel restrictions around COVID, Christie’s didn’t announce exact dates and locations for the tour beyond stops in Hong Kong and Taipei in April.
“Every time a painting like this has come up for auction or private sale…it changes the market,” Rotter said. “Not only for Warhol, but it changes the market itself.”
Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.