Christie’s to Sell Controversial Chris Ofili Virgin Mary Dung Painting

The work is most famous for the furor it incited at the 1999 "Sensation" show.

Chris Ofili The Holy Virgin Mary (1996). Photo courtesy of Christie's London.

Christie’s will offer Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) at its upcoming June 30 sale in London with an estimate of about $2.3 million. According to the artnet Price Database, this is the first time this work has come to auction.

The painting is being sold by Australian collector David Walsh, owner of the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) in Tasmania. Walsh purchased the work from British collector Charles Saatchi who bought it directly from the artist.

But it is most famous for the furor it incited when it was featured in the 1999 “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum featuring art from Saatchi’s holdings, when New York’s then-mayor Rudy Guiliani criticized the work as “sick” because of Ofili’s incorporation of elephant dung in a portrait of a holy icon.

Conservative media outlets eagerly followed suit. A Daily News headline at the time stated: “B’KLYN GALLERY OF HORROR. GRUESOME MUSEUM SHOW STIRS CONTROVERSY.” The report inaccurately described the painting as being “splattered with elephant dung.” In an act of protest, a retired teacher smeared white paint across the work in 1999, for which he received a $250 penalty.

Giuliani and the City of New York brought a court case against the Brooklyn Museum, threatening to cut city funding, and even threatened the institution with eviction. The museum and its director Arnold Lehman fought back with a First Amendment federal lawsuit, which it eventually won.

“I don’t feel as though I have to defend it,” Ofili told New York Times reporter Carol Vogel in a 1999 interview. “The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say anymore.”

Ofili’s work was the subject of a much-lauded retrospective at New York’s New Museum this past winter.

His current record at auction, according to the Artnet Price Database is roughly £1.9 million ($2.9 million) which was achieved at a Christie’s London sale, also oddly, on June 30 (the same date as the upcoming sale), back in 2010.

Given all the hype and controversy surrounding the portrait of the Virgin Mary, the work could potentially sell for far more than the estimate. And despite all the controversy, as for the much lauded recent New Museum show, Ofili has stood the test of time.

Presumably Walsh and Christie’s are not too concerned either way because the New York Times reports that because the painting has a third-party guarantee, there’s no question it will be sold.





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