Will Someone Actually Pay $2 Million for an Elephant-Dung Painting?

Photo: MONA Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Back in the '90s, Rudy Giuliani got quite angry that a certain painting in a show at the Brooklyn Museum was depicting the mother of Christ in elephant shit surrounded by cutout images from pornographic magazines.

The painting in question was Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary.

Now, Rudy, the good Catholic that he was, called such art “sick stuff” and demanded the show be canceled, huffed and puffed, threatened to cut off funding to the museum — all of which is kind of insane to think about, really. Man, weren’t the '90s wild?

And so, now, if you so desire, you can own this painting, the one work by the Turner Prize–winning artist that’s approached pop-culture status. It’s up at the Christie’s postwar and contemporary evening sale next month in London, and it’s estimated to sell for $2.3 million. The guy selling it is the off-kilter Australian collector David Walsh, the gambling billionaire (really) who built an underground museum in Tasmania and filled it with conceptual contemporary works, alongside mummies.

But wait, why would anyone want to spend some serious scrilla on what’s actually elephant dung?

Well, a lot of people, as he’s in the collections of Charles Saatchi and Dakis Joannou, not to mention the great institutions of the world, and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2003, plus the guys is generally considered a genius … hold on, maybe we should forget about the non-issue of what materials Ofili uses in his work and the long-ago ravings of a some hack mayor and just admire this painting? That would be nice.

If you want an explanation as to why using elephant dung has historical context surrounding it and is not just a way to piss off Rudy Giuliani, you can read last year's long profile of Ofili in The New Yorker.

Oh, and also: A third party has already guaranteed the minimum price for the work. So, essentially, it’s already sold. Carry on.