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Someone Just Paid $826,000 for the Greatest Cat Painting of All Time

“My Wife’s Lovers” pays tribute to the wealthiest cats of the 1890s

Bonus points if you can find a cat in this picture. (Sotheby’s New York)
smithsonian.com

At the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, a bold painting by Austrian artist Carl Kahler made a splash among critics. Entitled My Wife's Lovers, the work drew tremendous attention for its lavish depictions of a wealthy socialite's paramours. It wasn't infidelity, though: The "lovers" were her cats. Now, My Life's Lovers—perhaps the greatest cat tribute ever created by human hands—just sold at Sotheby's auction for a whopping $826,000.

The painting, which Kahler completed in the early 1890s, stands roughly six feet wide and eight-and-a-half feet tall. It features 42 Turkish Angora cats as they pose and play inside a luxurious home, surrounded by precious art and antiques.

Who would commission such an incredible a piece of art? It was none other than Kate Birdsall Johnson, a San Francisco philanthropist and one of history's greatest cat ladies. Johnson had more than 50 "lovers"—her husband's ironic nickname for the pets—and lived in luxury at a so-called "cat ranch" in California. Her feline friends were well heeled, to say the least, and had their own full-time staff. Johnson was known to pay thousands of dollars for an individual cat and even bought pet birds to amuse her furry darlings.

When Johnson died, according to legend, she willed a large sum of money to her cats so they would continue to live in luxury. A Sotheby's release claims that her will set aside $500,000 to guarantee the cats' perpetual care, but the actual document contains no reference to cats or other animals. She was certainly generous, though: Johnson's will established a free hospital with some of her riches.

Feline trust fund aside, one thing is clear: Johnson wasn't the only cat lover allured by Kahler's painting. A year after it attracted big attention at the Chicago World's Fair, it was sold at public auction. After it barely survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, My Wife's Lovers became a national sensation in the 1940s, gaining a reputation as "the world's greatest painting of cats." On November 3, an anonymous buyer spent nearly a million dollars to snag it. Johnson's fluffy friends would probably approve of the purchase.

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