Virgin Mary portrait using elephant dung sells for $4.5 million

Chris Ofili's portrait "The Holy Virgin Mary" sold at Christie's for about $4.5 million.

Chris Ofili’s portrait “The Holy Virgin Mary” sold at Christie’s for about $4.5 million.

(Andy Rain / EPA)

The portrait of the Virgin Mary made partly from elephant dung that famously riled then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when it was exhibited in 1999 sold Tuesday at a Christie’s auction in London for about $4.5 million.

Giuliani reportedly called the artwork “sick stuff” and “anti-Catholic” when he saw the portrait at the exhibition “Sensation,” featuring provocative art, that ran at the Brooklyn Museum more than 15 years ago. The city later filed a lawsuit against the institution, claiming that the show’s age restriction violated the terms of the museum’s lease.

On Tuesday, “The Holy Virgin Mary” by artist Chris Ofili brought in 2.9 million British pounds at auction (about $4.5 million), exceeding estimates that it would sell for as much as $2.8 million. The 1996 portrait had been in the private collection of advertising executive Charles Saatchi and was acquired by its most recent owner in 2007.

The mixed-media portrait depicts a black Virgin Mary whose open clothing reveals a breast of dried elephant dung. It also features pornographic cut-outs arranged around the biblical figure.


The portrait will be part of the upcoming exhibition “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” at the Aspen Art Museum starting July 17. The exhibition had been at the New Museum in New York.

“Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection” was seen at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1997 before traveling to the Brooklyn Museum.

“The Holy Virgin Mary” remains the most famous work by Ofili, a Turner Prize-winning British artist. The lawsuit against the Brooklyn Museum was settled in 2000.

Tuesday’s auction of postwar and contemporary art also saw the sale of works by Francis Bacon including “Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne and George Dyer,” which brought in $19.1 million, and “Two Men Working in a Field,” which went for $16.8 million.


Twitter: @DavidNgLAT