The High Price of Andy Warhol’s ‘Shot Blue Marilyn’


First reported here, the sale of Andy Warhol’s 1964 silkscreen, ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,’ is now set for May 9 at Christie’s in New York – and with a $200 million estimate (or £154 million), it’s attracting a great deal of press attention. Over at Vanity Fair, Nate Freeman considers the portrait’s lofty credentials…

“‘Two hundred is a huge benchmark. It’s the highest reported estimate ever, it’s the highest estimate ever put on an artwork,’ said Alex Rotter, the Christie’s chairman who’s overseeing the sale. ‘Could we have set more? You could always say more.’

Many are indeed saying more, making the $200 million mark seem not like the estimate—but the jumping-off point. Several dealers, advisers, auction specialists, and Warhol experts who I spoke to recently believe that, if the right tech billionaires, Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds, Asian foundations, or pandemic-enriched shipping magnates go head-to-head during the bidding, the work could hammer as high as $500 million, making it the most expensive artwork of all time—a marker currently held by Salvator Mundi, a rendering of Jesus Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that went for $450 million in 2017.

The bullishness has to do with the aura cast on this particular portrait of Monroe, which was in the collection of the Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann and his sister Doris, who died in 2021. (Another good reason to bid: The proceeds will all go not to another billionaire’s coffers but to a variety of charities.) For one, it’s a showstopper … A person who’s seen one Marilyn installed in a private home noted how visitors gravitate toward it over other masterpieces installed around it, like tourists ignoring MoMA’s many treasures to gawk at The Starry Night.

And these Marilyns are rare: Though known for democratizing the idea of fine art through pop imagery and mass production, Warhol only made five Marilyn Monroe portraits at this size, 40 inches square, each in a different color. Each time one has sold, it’s rejiggered the entire Warhol market—or possibly the entire art market in general. In 1998, in the midst of a recession, a great-niece of the German industrialist Karl Ströher put the Orange Marilyn on the block at Sotheby’s, with an aggressive estimate of at least $4 million … When bidding started, casino magnate Steve Wynn went neck and neck with S.I. Newhouse, late co-owner of Condé Nast, this publication’s parent company, repped in the room by a pen-wielding Larry Gagosian. Gagosian, raising his pen on behalf of Newhouse, prevailed, to the tune of $17.3 million.”

“Nine years after the auction, Gagosian was in the middle of another deal for a Warhol Marilyn, and the price had more than quadrupled. The Chicago collector Stefan Edlis cooked up a private agreement to sell the Turquoise Marilyn to trader (and now New York Mets owner) Steve Cohen for $80 million. Years after that, it looked like Cohen got the thing cheap. Following Newhouse’s death in 2017, his estate appointed former Sotheby’s rainmaker Tobias Meyer to work through his collection. While some works wound up at auction, Orange Marilyn was sold in a private transaction to Citadel founder Ken Griffin for what two sources close to the transaction said was $240 million.

There’s also the matter of why four of them have the word shot in their title. In the fall of 1964, the performance artist Dorothy Podber walked into The Factory and asked if she could shoot the stack of Marilyn Monroe portraits propped against the wall. Warhol, thinking she was going to shoot a picture with a camera, said sure, at which point Podber took off her gloves, grabbed a gun from her purse, and shot four Marilyn Monroes right between the eyes. The works were restored, and the aura of violence hovering around them (though the turquoise edition was spared in the assault) fit in perfectly with Warhol’s obsession with the darker side of celebrity, especially after he himself was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

‘Damage is seen as a negative, but it creates a layer of a story that is romantic and at the same time feeds completely into the theme of Marilyn and the commemoration of her death,’ Brett Gorvy said.

Vincent Fremont, who for decades served as the studio manager of The Factory and was a founder of the Andy Warhol Foundation, said that while Warhol rarely talked about his works in any kind of analytical way, he understood even then that these pieces were among his most powerful.

‘Andy knew the value of the paintings would go up and the Marilyns were always the strongest,’ Fremont said. “He did understand the value of his paintings. He kept lots of paintings in rolls so he could store them.”

Fremont added that it was all very serious collectors who bought the five Marilyns on the primary market from Warhol’s dealer, Leo Castelli. One was Peter Brant, who paid $5,000 for Shot Blue Marilyn in 1967, when he was 20 years old … ‘A lot of collectors would like to be perceived to be in a club of five, especially when those five are the ultimate collectors,’ Gorvy said.

A new member of the club will be minted May 9, and it’s currently an art world parlour game to guess who that person will be … Gorvy said the run-up to the sale of Shot Orange Marilyn, when some believed it could be auctioned off, could prove prophetic. Though it ended up selling privately without any bidding, he said that ‘there were three or four people who came forward who were very disappointed’ that they did not have the chance to outbid Griffin for the treasure.”

Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn