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Warhol's Marilyn: Charles Lisanby could have hit jackpot but declined

September 11, 2013|By David Colker
  • This silk-screen portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol was sold at a Sotheby's auction for $17.3 million in 1998. Warhol's friend, Charles Lisanby, turned down the artist's offer of one as a gift.
This silk-screen portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol was sold at a… (Sotheby's )

Long before production designer Charles Lisanby -- who recently died at age 89 -- became known for his lavish sets for 1980s TV music specials starring Barry Manilow, Diana Ross and many others, he and his best friend in New York constantly practiced drawing together.

They even traveled together around the world in 1956, studying art and culture in several countries in Asia and Europe.

Eventually Lisanby moved to Hollywood to make his mark. His friend -- Andy Warhol -- stayed in New York, and of course became world-famous. The two remained friends for many years, though art historians say Warhol wanted more from the relationship. 

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"Andy was very much infatuated with Charles," said Matt Wrbican, chief archivist of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Lisanby was also gay, but didn't have romantic feelings for Warhol in return.

At one point, Warhol called Lisanby to offer him a gift of one of his silk-screen portraits of Marilyn Monroe that had just been shown. Those portraits are now among the most famous of Warhol's works, but back then they were hardly known and Lisanby turned it down, making an excuse that he had no room for it.

In a 2007 interview taped by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Lisanby said that Warhol tried to persuade him to take it. "He said, 'Wrap it up in brown paper, put it in the back of the closet, one day it will be worth $1 million.'" Lisanby said.

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"Well, he was slightly wrong about that," Lisanby said. "The last one I heard that was sold went for $4 million." 

That might be far too low a number. In 1998, one of the Warhol silk-screens of Monroe went for more than $17 million at auction.

But the soft-spoken Lisanby, who much preferred Warhol's beautiful drawings to the artist's later works, said he had no regrets.

"I wasn't sorry that I didn't take it," Lisanby said, "because I didn't really particularly like them."

Wrbican said he admires Lisanby's stance. "I think that's incredibly honorable," Wrbican said.


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