The art market can’t get enough of Andy Warhol’s Marilyns

Amid global troubles, the upper echelon of the art market is doing very well, judging by news this week that an Andy Warhol screenprint of Marilyn Monroe will be auctioned in May at an estimate of around $200 million. ‘Shot Sage Blue Marilyn’ stands alongside Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ as ‘one of the greatest paintings of all time’, Christie’s declared ambitiously.

At this price it has to be, but the auction house’s other boast deserves even closer scrutiny – that the painting is “an unrivaled example of twentieth-century art by the American artist the most important”. Well, up to a point: it matches very closely with four other Marilyn prints in different colors, produced by Warhol in his Factory studio in New York in 1964.

Take that, Walter Benjamin. The German cultural essayist who disputed in 1935 that the aura of a work of art “fades in the age of mechanical reproduction” did not take Warhol into account. Judging by the prices they fetch today, the pop artist’s most desirable works retain a lot of aura.

marilyn orangeanother in the set, helped spark a quarter century of growth in the contemporary art market in fetch a surprising $17.3 million at Sotheby’s in 1998. Despite the fact that Warhol produced 8,000 paintings and sculptures in front of him died in 1987and viewed with skepticism during his lifetime by many collectors, his work has become an indicator.

Warhol’s Marilyns, from a publicity still from Monroe’s 1953 film niagara, are the iconic image of the actress, who died in 1962 of an overdose. They also illustrate his fascination with fame and tragedy: his current auction record is the $105.4 million recovered by “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” at Sotheby’s in 2013.

It is often arbitrary how an artist’s painting – or in this case, a set of five – becomes the most valuable. An origin story to restore its aura helps, and the “hit” of this title says it all. Four of the five Marilyns were shot at with a gun by performance artist Dorothy Podber as it was stacked at the factory, punching holes in a couple.

Shot Marilyns are rarer than most other Warhols because he used a more precise and time-consuming screen printing method to produce them, compared to his much larger series of other works. One of his Mao serigraphs from 1972 in an edition of 250 has been sold no-fuss at Christie’s for $44,100 this month.

But mechanical reproduction helps establish a market of artists, a point Warhol grasped early on. The fact that he has done a lot other versions of Marilyn’s photo enhances the value of those from 1964. “Flooding your brain with the images it thought was important was part of his approach,” says Alex Rotter, head of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s.

Warhol was intrigued by finance (“the new art is really a business”, he noticed in 1969) and multiple drawdowns provide benchmarks for liquidity and pricing. the private sell of “Orange Marilyn” in 2017 to Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund group Citadel, for more than $200 million makes Christie’s estimate rational, in that everything is rational in the business.

The other benefit of having lots of works by artists in the world is that more people can own one. Reinsurance is priceless in a market that relies so much on trust (and some tricks of trust). The value of a work of art is reflected not only in the price of others, but in the reputation of collectors.

This is why auction houses place so much emphasis on provenance – who owned a painting and where it was exhibited. “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” has a top notch resume, from being sold by Leo Castelli, the New York gallerist who represented Warhol, to being owned by former Condé Nast owner Si Newhouse, and later by Thomas Ammann, a Distinguished Zurich Merchant.

Even a lesser record helps allay art-world ingenues’ fear of innocently overpaying for contemporary works with little intrinsic value and making a fool of themselves. Each gallery artfully sells its wares, but there’s nothing more convincing than proof that the sophisticated agree with its claims.

Indeed, a painting then becomes the guarantee of something more precious psychologically: admission to a club of wealthy aesthetes that we find at Art Basel Miami, courted by artists and galleries. Buy a Warhol or a Jasper Johns absolves a billionaire of being a mere philistine.

“The market for high-value art is about creating peer-to-peer relationships between a global class of wealthy people. They may not speak the same language, but they may own the same works of art,” says Marion Maneker, editorial director of LiveArt, an online art marketplace.

Warhol was therefore ahead of his time by producing many Marilyns, Maos and Elvis. Not only did he anticipate a world in which everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but also one in which there would be many more collectors wanting to pick from among its multiple editions. If five Marilyns are now worth a billion dollars combined, he was right to win more than one.

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