Bunny Mellon’s $250 Million Rothkos Sold in Private Sale

When Sotheby’s next week reveals what art, furniture and jewelry from the estate of banking heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon will go on sale, the blockbuster collection will be notable for what’s missing.

Three paintings -- two by Mark Rothko valued at as much as $250 million and one by Richard Diebenkorn -- will be absent from upcoming auctions in New York because they were sold privately earlier this year, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the information is private.

The deal is significant because it’s one of the largest transactions in the art market and may have set personal records for the two postwar artists. It also gives a glimpse into private sales, a secretive part of the opaque $66 billion art industry. Unlike auctions, where final prices are public, private sales are confidential, making them unknown to most market outsiders.

This cherrypicking of the collection also shows hunger for trophy art -- many of the works owned by the Mellons are now in museums -- at a time when values for modern and contemporary art are soaring as more wealthy individuals see it as a good investment.

Auction Record

One of the Rothkos was valued by auction experts for as much as $150 million and the Diebenkorn for as much as $20 million, the person said. Rothko’s $86.9 million auction record was set when his 1961 “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold at Christie’s in 2012. The auction house the same year sold a Diebenkorn painting from his “Ocean Park” series for an artist record of $13.5 million.

A Francis Bacon triptych holds the title of most expensive artwork at auction, selling for $142.4 million at Christie’s in November in New York.

Bunny Mellon, who died in March at 103, was the widow of Paul Mellon, son of Andrew W. Mellon, the Pittsburgh industrialist turned financier who was one of the richest men of his time and served as U.S. Treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932.

Alexander Forger, the executor of Mellon’s estate, confirmed in a telephone interview that three paintings had been sold. He declined to identify the paintings, the price or buyer’s identity, citing confidentiality agreements.

The paintings were probably sold for about $300 million based on auction estimates, said the person.

Longtime Client

The sale was probably orchestrated with the help of Franck Giraud, a dealer whose longtime client was Bunny Mellon, according to six experts in postwar art who asked not to be identified because they weren’t involved in the sale. The art dealership co-founded by Giraud in 2001 was known for high-profile clients including the royal family of Qatar, the small, oil-rich Persian Gulf state. Giraud didn’t return three calls seeking comment.

The royal family of Qatar has emerged as one of the major art buyers in recent years, stockpiling Western masterpieces. In 2011, Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, daughter of the Emir of Qatar and chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, was named the most influential person in the art world, according to Art & Auction magazine’s annual Power 100 list.

Rania Hussein, head of media relations for the Qatar Museums Authority in Doha, declined to comment on whether Qatar bought the Mellon paintings.

Blue Diamond

The sale of the three paintings leaves about 2,000 lots in the Mellon collection at Sotheby’s that is valued at about $100 million. A blue diamond estimated at $10 million and two additional paintings by Rothko, jointly estimated at about $50 million, will be among the stars of a series of six auctions in November. The proceeds will benefit the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation, a charity established by Mellon in honor of her father.

Sotheby’s has auctioned the estates of prominent American women including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Betsey Cushing Whitney and Brooke Astor.

Bunny Mellon’s “spectacular fine art, magnificent jewels and interiors all reflect the taste and style for which she was long admired,” Sotheby’s spokesman Andrew Gully said in an e-mail.

The most expensive Rothko in the private sale was “No. 20 (Yellow Expanse)” from 1953. Almost 10-feet-tall and 15-feet-wide, the monumental canvas hung in the Oak Spring Garden Library of the Mellon’s home in Upperville, Virginia.

Classic Rothko

“Unquestionably, it is the jewel in the crown,” said David Anfam, author of “Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas,” the first volume of the artist’s catalogue raisonne, an illustrated book that lists the details of 834 paintings by Rothko. “Unlike its companion at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, it’s not labored. In terms of its size there is nothing to compare it with since this is the only ‘classic’ Rothko, as opposed to the Seagram and Harvard murals, of such epic dimensions.”

The second Rothko in the private sale was a 1957 8-foot-tall vertical, blue canvas “No. 14 (White and Greens in Blue),” which was previously owned by Nelson A. Rockefeller.

The Mellons owned nine paintings by Rothko, according to the catalogue raisonne, having purchased them from 1970 to 1971. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.

Museum Loans

Over the years, many of these works had been lent to the National Gallery of Art, the Washington museum founded by Andrew Mellon. Two Rothko paintings are in the museum’s permanent collection as gifts of the Mellons, according to the museum’s website.

In the early 2000s, after Paul Mellon’s death, Bunny Mellon sold three of the Rothko paintings to Francois Pinault, the French billionaire and owner of Christie’s, said Forger, the executor of her estate. It was one of the first big transactions brokered by Giraud after he left Christie’s, where he was international head of the Impressionst and modern art department, according to the six postwar experts.

Pinault in 2006 exhibited the three Rothkos he bought from the Mellons at Palazzo Grassi, his private museum in Venice, Italy. The billionaire has since parted with two of them, selling one -- 1952 “Untitled (Blue, Green and Brown)” -- to money manager Steven A. Cohen, according to art dealers.

Jonathan Gasthalter, a spokesman for Cohen at Sard Verbinnen & Co., declined to comment.

The Mellons owned “an extraordinary array” of Rothkos said Anfam, the author of the catalogue raisonne.

“There are small works and large works, horizontal and vertical, light and dark,” he said. “With each painting, it’s absolutely top quality. That’s what’s so unique about this group.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.