May 9, 2022 - Economy

Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portrait fetches $195 million, setting modern record

Warhol's Marilyn on display at Christie's

Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Andy Warhol's iconic 1964 pop art portrait of actress Marilyn Monroe — considered by some the Mona Lisa of the 20th century — sold at Christie's on Monday for approximately $195 million.

Why it matters: "Shot Sage Blue Marilyn" fetched a total of $195,040,000, an auction record for any modern painting. However, the figure is substantially less than what was anticipated by many.

  • In the context of financial markets in free-fall, the appetite for high-end art is seemingly not bottomless.

The big picture: "Shot Sage Blue Marilyn" is not the most important Warhol in existence, or even the most important Marilyn. Earlier portraits of Monroe, like the "Gold Marilyn" at MoMA or the "Marilyn Diptych" at the Tate, have more art-historical importance.

  • The series of five, 40-inch square portraits that Warhol made of the actress in 1964, however, have long been an art-market benchmark. That's partly because they're all still in private hands and partly because of the power of the silkscreened image.

What they're saying: "It’s so crisp and clean," Warhol biographer and New York Times contributor Blake Gopnik tells Axios. "It looks like a reproduction of itself."

  • The painting was featured, for instance, on the poster of the Tate Gallery 1971 Warhol retrospective in London — a poster, Gopnik says, that "was absolutely everywhere, including on the wall of my childhood bathroom."
  • "Collectors don’t really buy because something’s important, they mostly buy because it’s glorious eye candy," he says, adding that one other thing collectors like is the cachet of owning one of the most expensive paintings in the world.

Context: The previous auction record for an American painting was held by a Jean-Michel Basquiat skull that sold for $110.5 million. The record for a modern painting was held by a Picasso that sold for $179 million in 2015.

  • The record for a Warhol was almost certainly the $240 million that hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin paid for the orange version of this Marilyn portrait in 2017. Although that sale was private and didn't take place in an auction saleroom, Monday's result implies that the market for high-end Warhols has actually declined over the past five years.
  • Leonardo da Vinci's controversial "Salvator Mundi" painting, which netted $450 million in 2017, holds the overall record price paid for any painting that's ever been created.

The bottom line: Market worries can infect everything — even the desire of billionaires for trophy assets.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that "Shot Sage Blue Marilyn" was made in 1964 (not 1965).

Go deeper