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On Monday night at Christie’s New York, Larry Gagosian lifted his hand and spent $195 million of someone’s money on a single work of art, Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn. Any way you slice it, that is a stupendous display of global capital, a transaction played out in the heart of Manhattan by the world’s most powerful art dealer, on behalf of an anonymous billionaire client—perhaps one of the biggest billionaire clients, if the many clued-in sources are to be believed.

The portrait of Marilyn Monroe—consigned by the estate of Thomas and Doris Ammann, with the proceeds going to a foundation that provides health care to underprivileged children—was the priciest work by an American artist ever sold at auction.

“We did sell the most expensive painting of the 20th century, and we’re very proud of that,” Christie’s chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art, Alex Rotter, said in a press conference after the sale. “Nearly $200 million. Just let that sink in.”

An accomplishment, no doubt, and almost certainly the most expensive artwork that will sell during the two-week run of auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips in the coming days, which will easily top a combined $2 billion in total. The proceedings continued with a $103 million sale at Christie’s Tuesday, and on Thursday, at the sale of work from the collection of the Fifth Avenue–by–way–of–Fort Worth billionaire Anne Bass, a trio of Monets are expected to sell for $165 million and a duo of Rothkos are expected to sell for $145 million.

And yet the feeling in the room after the Warhol sale was, if you can believe it, deflated. The Marilyn was slotted at the very end, effectively forcing clients who expected to peace out after the big lot to stay for the entirety of the two-hour sale. And then, when the work finally came up, instead of a flurry of bidding it was eerily quiet, with just a handful of bids and the work hammering at $170 million, well below the on-request estimate of $200 million. (The final price includes fees.)

Still an enormous figure, to be sure…but perhaps not so big within the full context of the through-the-rabbit-hole contemporary-art market. After all, just five years ago, Ken Griffin spent $240 million on Shot Orange Marilyn, buying it from the estate of Si Newhouse in a private sale orchestrated by stealth mega-dealer Tobias Meyer weeks after the publishing magnate’s death.

The five different-color works in the series are often measured against one another equally, meaning that, when accounting for inflation, the value of a Shot Marilyn Warhol seems to have slumped by about 30%, from about $286 million in 2017 (when adjusted for inflation) to $195 million in 2022.

“It’s bullshit,” said one collector who was present, speaking after the sale. “We sat there all night, and it sold on a blah bid. Such an anticlimax after making the crowd wait until the last lot.”

After the hammer came down, there was a smattering of applause, and everyone shuffled out of their folding chairs in Christie’s salesroom to form the most fabulous scrum in New York City, a mosh pit of Loro Piana–scarf–wearing collectors, long-standing doyennes of the art scene, and the dealers who bid on behalf of them, all cramming into the stairwell at Rockefeller Center. Once outside, they took a beat to assemble their dinner crews. The Mugrabi family, the world’s biggest Warhol collectors, were on one end, with Tico Mugrabi yammering into his cell phone next to his wife, Colby Mugrabi, and his brother David Mugrabi, all trying to find the car. The Nahmad family, the Monegasque art titans once said to have 300 Picasso works worth a clean billion dollars, stood on another end of the courtyard, also scrambling to figure out their dinner plans. And the two sons of the Greek shipping billionaire Philip NiarchosStavros Niarchos and Theo Niarchos, the former playboys turned domestic homebodies—stood outside Christie’s, looking a bit bored, or perhaps even concerned.

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Why would two Adonis-looking, richer-than-God heirs to a big boat fortune look so gloomy? Well, their dad bought Shot Red Marilyn at Christie’s in 1994 for $3.6 million, and for decades the prices of other works in the series have risen steadily. Newhouse bought his for $17.3 million four years later. Steve Cohen bought his from Stefan Edlis for $80 million in 2007. And then a decade later, Griffin bought his for $240 million. What’s more, it’s been speculated that when Griffin bought his privately, there were others out there willing to spend even more than he paid. 

Brett Gorvy, the former Christie’s rainmaker who’s now a partner at the gallery LGDR, told me last month that “there were three or four people who came forward who were very disappointed” after the Shot Orange Marilyn was sold privately instead of at auction. Oh, what could have been: In the run-up to the Newhouse sale, a popular art world parlor game was to guess how much Warhol’s masterpieces could gross. Of the museum-level collection, a Warhol Marilyn was always the one to go for the highest price.

“There was talk at that stage that Shot Orange Marilyn would have certainly gone higher than $300 million,” Gorvy told me. And then the market trend line for Shot Marilyns’ value took a dip on the y-axis for the first time in history on Monday.

Those buyers willing to drop a third of a bill did not show up at Christie’s this week. And why not? Well, it could be the fact that there’s war in Europe, which Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti alluded to at the still-chipper post-sale press conference, saying, “We know that we live in challenging times.” Markets had their worst day in years Monday, as the Dow fell more than 600 points. Hopes that a chest-thumping crypto bro would be brazen enough to compete with seasoned collectors were dashed when markets opened and Bitcoin dropped to below $30,000 for the first time since July 2021.

Or it could be because the prospective bidders already blew their art-buying scratch on other toys. Last week, the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, run by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, pledged $375 million to back Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter for $44 billion, while the Qatari emir’s sworn enemy, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal—known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Warren Buffett—agreed to hold on to his $1.9 billion in Twitter stock as the social media platform transitions into the Musk era. It’s unclear if either were among the phone bidders Monday, but regardless, they were not willing to go the distance to buy the work. (Musk, whose financial might is, as noted, a little preoccupied at the moment, is also not much of a collector.)

And so those who managed to snag a coveted seat in the smaller-than-usual salesroom were denied the fireworks that accompanied the Salvator Mundi, the purported Leonardo that in 2017 sold for $400 million, or $450.3 million with the buyer’s premium tacked on. And on that lot, there were 18 minutes of frenzied, gasp-inducing bidding, as two princes from the Middle East on the phone with two Christie’s specialists battled it out against each other—reportedly because they both thought they were bidding against their sworn enemies in Qatar. Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah was on the phone with Rotter when he placed the winning bid on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, beating out the rep for Mohammed Bin Zayed, crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The current whereabouts of the work are unknown.

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To be fair, there was some spirit bidding on the lots that preceded the Warhol. The sale opened with a painting by the appropriation artist Mike Bidlo. Estimated to sell for at most $80,000, it instead inspired a wave of bidding across the room and hammered to Christie’s international director Max Carter for an astounding $1 million. The collector Peter Brant bid from the salesroom to buy Francesco Clemente’s The Fourteen Stations, No. XI for a hammer price of $1.5 million, and later bought a Giacometti plaster for $1.7 million with fees. The room was lively enough for auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen to playfully urge mega-dealers on the aisle to bid up works by artists in the stables, and he thanked Iwan Wirth for taking the action on Mary Heilmann and Robert Ryman lots before Wirth finally secured a sculpture by Martin Kippenberger. The other Kippenberger in the sale, a massive untitled painting, also scored bids by Wirth before landing with the gallerist Per Skarstedt.

But the biggest buyer in the room was Gagosian, who, during the run of sale, secured two Cy Twomblys for a total of $38 million with fees, and also snapped up a Brice Marden painting and a Franz West sculpture. And then came the Warhol Marilyn.

“And so, ladies and gentlemen,” Pylkkänen said from the rostrum. “We come to the American dream: Warhol’s sublime depiction of Marilyn Monroe, a painting which was with Si Newhouse before it was purchased by Thomas and Doris Ammann through the Gagosian gallery in 1986. Where do we start? Who’d like to open the bidding here?”

And we were off. For a breathless 60 seconds, Pylkkänen took bids from clients on the phone with Christie’s imp-mod chair Adrien Meyer and the Viking-beard-rocking Rotter—“one thirty, I have one forty, one forty-five, one hundred and fifty meeeeellion”—until the number stalled.

“We’re at $160 million; 160 is the bid, and we’re pausing with Adrien,” Pylkkänen said.

“One seventy!” Gagosian bellowed from the crowd.

“You heard it, the gentlemen in the third row,” Pylkkänen said.

But then the auctioneer struggled to get a bid from his colleagues for a few minutes, until it became clear that no bid would top Gagosian’s.

“Last chance, fair warning, last chance, here it is, the Warhol is selling here,” Pylkkänen said, looking down at the impending winner.

Gagosian gave a bit of a shrug, and the hammer came down.

So who bought the thing? We can rule out that it was for Gagosian’s personal collection, even if the man does have a few choice Warhols hanging at the Upper East Side mansion, including Triple Elvis, which he’s owned for more than a decade and watched as a similar version sold at Christie’s in 2014 for more than $81 million.

On Monday throughout the sale, Gagosian had bid with a normal white paddle, but after the hammer came down on the most expensive American artwork ever sold at auction, he raised a large red paddle with the number 2165, indicating that this was for someone different from whomever he was buying the Twomblys and the Marden and the West for. And indeed, sources close to Gagosian told me on background that they were 99.9 percent sure it was for a client and not for him or the gallery.

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For what it’s worth, sources say the buyer was not another of Gagosian’s clients, Ken Griffin, who did just spend $240 million on another Warhol Marilyn in the same series a few years ago. As I walked out of the salesroom, I ran into Ryan Murphy, the television savant who this year unveiled his documentary series based on The Andy Warhol Diaries. Sadly he hadn’t bid on the work himself, but he offered a guess as to who won it.

“I think it could be Bernard Arnault,” Murphy said.

While Mr. Arnault—the owner of LVMH and a billionaire 144 times over—did not appear to be in the room, his son Alexandre Arnault was there, sitting on the aisle with the Mugrabis, a sweater from one of Hedi Slimane’s lines for Celine (an LVMH brand, natch) folded neatly over his chair.

But perhaps it’s a pipe dream to think that Mr. Arnault would buy such a high-profile work at an auction house owned by LVMH’s bête noire, the Kering owner François Pinault. Plus, as another source close to Gagosian said, the dealer has plenty of clients who very well could have authorized him to bid on their behalf. When Oprah Winfrey sold her Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, to a Chinese collector for $150 million, she did so because the deal was brokered by Gagosian. Perhaps she had entrusted Gagosian to once again play her proxy in order to win another portrait of a woman, albeit it one from a different era?

Another potential buyer was David Geffen, who spent decades building up one of the world’s greatest collections before starting to sell it off in the 2000s. In 2020, however, Geffen sold the former Jack Warner estate in L.A.’s Benedict Canyon to Jeff Bezos for $165 million and then promptly bought a David Hockney for $30 million, so he’s not out of the game entirely. And he’s a longtime client of Gagosian’s, so he seemed like a solid bet to be the buyer, especially since his net worth of $10 billion could certainly absorb it. But alas, on Wednesday a representative in Geffen’s office stated that he was not the buyer of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.

Speaking of the former Amazon CEO who bought Geffen’s house: On Tuesday, multiple sources with a deep knowledge of Gagosian’s clients indicated that the buyer could have been Bezos, the world’s second-richest man, whose collecting habits have become more serious since the fall of 2019, when he bought Ed Ruscha’s Hurting the Word Radio #2 for $52.5 million at Christie’s and Kerry James Marshall’s Vignette 19 for $18.5 million at Sotheby’s. While it’s not confirmed that Bezos is a major client of Gagosian’s, he has been spotted at dinners for the gallery, most notably the bash Larry throws at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills after the Oscar-week marquee opening, and at parties at Larry’s L.A. pad in Holmby Hills. But on Wednesday, a personal representative for Bezos said he was not the buyer of Shot Sage Blue Marilyn.

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