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Unearthed Rothko, $10 Lichtenstein in Spring Auction Surprises

"Untitled #17" (1961) by Mark Rothko fetched $33.7 million at Christies on May 11. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

April 13 (Bloomberg) -- An undocumented Mark Rothko painting could fetch as much as $22 million at Christie’s in New York next month as collectors from Moscow to Qatar vie for trophy art.

“Untitled No. 17,” depicting pink and red rectangles on a tangerine-yellow background, will be offered at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art auction on May 11.

The 1961 painting, which hasn’t been seen publicly since 1965, is one of several rediscovered art works on the block this year. Christie’s is offering Roy Lichtenstein’s, “Drawing for Kiss V,” which re-emerged after decades of obscurity with an estimate range of $800,000 to $1.2 million. It was originally bought with a $10 lottery ticket in 1965.

An unpublished 1967 self-portrait by Andy Warhol fetched 10.8 million pounds ($17.4 million) at Christie’s in London earlier this year.

“Untitled No. 17” is one of 10 Rothko paintings discovered since the publication of the artist’s catalogue raisonne in 1998.

“It’s one of the very few that got away,” said David Anfam, London-based art historian and the author of “Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas.” “It went to a private collection soon after it was made and those collectors just kept a very low profile.”

Rothko painted 22 mostly somber canvases in 1961, the year of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“This work is coming in between two milestones of his late development,” Anfam said. “He has finished the Seagram murals, and he is on the brink of getting into the Harvard murals; that’s going to be in 1962.”

Ominous Undertone

How can we be sure this is an authentic Rothko?

Anfam was convinced by the delicacy of the paint handling, the type of stretcher, and signature details such as the faint olive-green that creeps out from beneath the red, adding an ominous undertone to the overall effusiveness.

“Everything about it indicates that it’s an A-OK Rothko,” said Anfam.

In 2007, David Rockefeller’s 1950 Rothko work, “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),” fetched $72.8 million at Sotheby’s, setting an auction record for the artist. The buyers were the Emir of Qatar and his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, the Art Newspaper said in May 2008.

Avid Collectors

The Rothko market didn’t suffer from a downturn, according to Skate’s Art Market Research: The artist ranks 12th among 659 artists by market value, with 52 works sold at auction above $1.8 million, for a total of $552 million.

“Rothko’s work sells best when the palette is very rich and vibrant, and when the structure and color meld together,” said Jonathan Laib, Christie’s postwar and contemporary art specialist in New York.

“Primary interest can be seen in Europe and America, as well as in Russia and the Middle East.”

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the reporter of this story: Katya Kazakina in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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