Picasso, 1954 Rothko May Bring $70 Million at Sotheby’s

'Femme a la fenetre (Marie-Therese)'
"Femme a la fenetre (Marie-Therese)" (April 13, 1936) by Pablo Picasso. The painting is estimated at $15 million to $20 million. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Sotheby’s has scored two major consignments ahead of the big November art auctions, with a Pablo Picasso and a Mark Rothko that together could sell for as much as $70 million.

Rothko’s 1954 “No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue)” has been valued between $35 million and $50 million. It will lead Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art on Nov. 13.

The seller of the Rothko is Anne Marion, owner of Burnett Cos. in Fort Worth, Texas, according to people with knowledge of the transaction. Her husband John L. Marion was Sotheby’s chairman and chief auctioneer. Sotheby’s declined to confirm the seller of the work except to say that the painting is held in a family trust.

The Rothko, almost 9.5 feet tall and 5.5 feet wide, was one of eight pieces selected by the artist for his solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. It has been exhibited in many museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris.

In 1978, the painting was purchased by Ben Heller, a major collector and private dealer of Abstract Expressionism. Sandra Canning, who acted as an agent for the transaction, said Heller paid $325,000.

“I would call it a very good Rothko. I would not call it a masterpiece,” Heller said in a telephone interview. “It’s an important, rare work.” He has owned more than a dozen Rothkos, and gave the Museum of Modern Art its Barnett Newman masterpiece, “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” in 1969.

Heller subsequently sold the painting for less than $500,000, he said.

Price Increase

When asked what he thought about Sotheby’s estimate, he said, “I bought my first Rothko for $1,350 in the early 1950s. So the price increase has been astronomical.”

Picasso’s portrait of his lover and muse Marie-Therese Walter is expected to sell for $15 million to $20 million. Painted in 1936, “Femme a la fenetre (Marie-Therese)” will be part of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern evening sale on Nov. 5.

Picasso held on to the painting until his death in 1973. It was in the collection of Marina Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter, and shown in “Picasso and Portraiture, Representation and Transformation,” a 1996 MoMA exhibition curated by William Rubin.

Both the Rothko and the Picasso have remained in the same collections for about 30 years, Sotheby’s said.

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