Iconic Marilyn Monroe Photos (and the Camera That Took Them) to Hit the Auction Block

Marilyn Monroe_Hugging Pillow_Douglas Kirkland - Publicity - H 2019
Douglas Kirkland/Courtesy of Christie's New York

Two images from Douglas Kirkland's legendary "White Sheet" series of the screen icon are part of an Oct. 29 Christie’s sale that includes his Hasselblad camera and lenses — as well as a photo shoot for the buyer.

Christie’s has enjoyed a healthy history of selling Marilyn Monroe photographs taken by photographers like Richard Avedon and Andy Warhol, but the auction house has never featured a sale that includes a portrait session with a legendary lensman — until now. 

On Oct. 29, among its annual “Exceptional Sale,” Christie’s New York is including Lot #1025, “A Night With Marilyn,” which includes two limited-edition prints of the iconic actress from Douglas Kirkland’s famed “White Sheet” series, originally created for Look magazine in 1961, as well as the Hasselblad 500C, two Carl Zeiss lenses and two magazine backs he used for the photo session. The seven-piece lot carries an auction estimate of $200,000 to $300,000, and there’s a bonus: Kirkland is also offering a photo shoot for the winning bidder. 

“Imagine being the only person you know who has photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken by Douglas Kirkland, plus his camera equipment, and then also a photo of you — or whoever you’d like — that he’s taken,” says Becky MacGuire, sale director of the Christie’s event. “There’s just no comparable for an added value like that.” 

At age 85, Kirkland is indeed still actively shooting. A documentary about his life and workThat Click, premieres this weekend during the Rome Film Festival, with interviews that include Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman and Baz Luhrmann, who worked with the photographer on the set of 2000’s Moulin Rouge. In That Click, Kidman reflects on the impact of the 1961 photos of Monroe, which collectively have become known as the “White Sheet” series, as the actress is surrounded by little more than white silk sheets and a pillow, with Kirkland shooting from all angles, though the overhead shots historically have garnered the most interest. “There’s such a fragility to it and such an honesty,” Kidman says in That Click of the series. 

Kirkland, then just 27, was nervous at the prospect of his first photo shoot with Monroe, MacGuire says, and the actress noticed. “She announced to everyone in the room, ‘I know what we really need — I need to be alone with this boy,’ so the photo assistant left, the agent left and it was just Kirkland and Marilyn in the room together,” MacGuire notes. “He also just used a handheld light, because he didn’t want to distract her with something that might create a bit more noise. And you see that electricity between them. It’s magical.” 

In an email to The Hollywood Reporter, Kirkland downplays the impact of his photographs. “I never, ever thought any of my work would become ‘important,’” he says. “I am still shooting at 85. Photography is in my blood, and I see the world better through a camera. I still don’t quite believe the attention I am getting. I feel incredibly fortunate.” 

Kirkland’s photographs and camera equipment ultimately fit nicely within Christie’s “Exceptional Sale,” an annual event that has taken place since 2008. “In addition to masterpieces of decorative arts, we like to think of it as significant icons of popular culture, top examples by an esteemed maker,” MacGuire explains, noting that past lots have included Carole King’s Steinway piano and a limited-edition Aston Martin owned by Daniel Craig. “This year we also have one of Miles Davis’s trumpets, the blue ‘Moon and Stars’ trumpet made by Martin Company, which also made trumpets for Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles idolized Dizzy. He was an extremely visual person, so he designed this piece in a deep-blue lacquer with gilt moon and stars, and it’s quite visually arresting.” 

The same, of course, can be said about Kirkland’s Monroe photographs. And 57 years after her death, it seems the screen icon is hotter than ever: In addition to the Kirkland lot in the Christie’s auction, Culver City-based Julien’s Auctions is hosting “Property From the Life and Career of Marilyn Monroe,” a sale of costumes, furniture and other personal items Nov. 1, while on Oct. 31, watch brand Blancpain will debut “Timeless Elegance,” an exhibition in its Madison Avenue boutique. “Timeless Elegance” will showcase a rarely seen, Art Deco-inspired Blancpain timepiece worn by Monroe, surrounded by Lawrence Schiller photographs and a variety of memorabilia. 

What is it about Monroe that continues to draw such interest? “It’s not just that she always photographed so beautifully; her story is also very poignant, and I think that really connects with people,” MacGuire says. “You see that with certain icons. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Audrey Hepburn — the interest is worldwide, and stronger than ever.”