Massive Cat Painting Sells for $826,000

Kate Birdsall Johnson commissioned this painting of her many cats. She died just two years after its completion. Carl Kahler/SothebysTV

A "meownificent" painting went on sale this week, and it was estimated that interested buyers would spend $300,000 to get their paws on it. But the feline-inspired portrait went for much, much more.

A mystery buyer paid $826,000 to take home what's being called "the largest and most expensive cat painting ever."

Titled “My Wife’s Lovers,” the 19th-century artwork is 6 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide and features more than 40 cats of various breeds and colors. Weighing in at 227 pounds, the painting is so cumbersome that Sotheby’s had difficulties displaying it.

"The picture is so large and so heavy, we had to make a special wall to hang it,” Polly Sartori, head of 19th-century European paintings, drawings and sculpture at Sotheby’s, told artnet News. “When we originally put the painting up on a normal wall, it pulled the nails right out of the wall."

The portrait was put on display in the center of the gallery for the Nov. 3 auction, and Sartori said that Sotheby’s knew for months that the feline work of art would be a “total winner.” The auction house originally estimated that the painting would fetch between $200,000 and $300,000.

“When we had it just leaning up in our cataloging area ... many of our staffers would take a photograph in front of it and post it on Instagram and we hadn't even posted our press release yet,” she said.

In 1891, San Francisco cat lover and philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson commissioned Austrian artist Carl Kahler to paint the portrait of her 42 beloved cats.

Kahler observed the cherished felines for years, making sketches of them and noting their personality traits. It took him three years to complete the portrait, which features a green-eyed cat named Sultan — a cat Johnson bought in Paris for $3,000 — at its center.

The purrfect painting got its name from Johnson’s husband, who clearly had a sense of humor about his cat lady of a wife.

Johnson was rumored to have had up to 350 cats at one time — in fact, all of them had names and occupied their own floor in her Sonoma County mansion. The cats were also said to have their own servants.

She died in 1893, just two years after the portrait was completed. She left $500,000 to ensure her cats would be well taken care of in her absence.