Rothko Works Lead $158.7 Million Sale From Mellon Estate

A group of 43 artworks from the estate of American socialite Bunny Mellon sold for $158.7 million at Sotheby’s, led by two Mark Rothko paintings.

“Untitled,” a 5.7 foot-tall blue and purple oil painting created in 1970, the year the artist died, sold yesterday in New York for $39.9 million, almost double its high estimate of $20 million.

“Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” a 6.8 foot-tall painting from 1955, sold for $36.6 million. It had been valued at $20 million to $30 million. Prices include commission; estimates don’t.

The buyer of the yellow and orange work was art dealer David Nahmad, who said after the sale that he bid for himself rather than a client. “I think it’s a great buy,” he said.

Rachel Lambert Mellon, who died in March at the age of 103, had acquired most of the works with her late husband, the banking heir Paul Mellon. He gave her “Femme Tenant Un Bouquet,” a crayon on paper drawing by Georges Seurat, as a birthday gift. The work, which is circa 1882, sold for $5.3 million, above its estimate of $2 million to $3 million.

“It’s wonderful to see someone who had such eclectic taste, and who wasn’t afraid to be passionate and collect the things she loved,” said Abigail Asher, a partner at Guggenheim Asher Associates, an art advisory service in New York and Los Angeles. “The objects are really magnificent.”

Three Sales

The auction -- which exceeded its high estimate of $120 million and sold 100 percent of its lots -- was the first of three that Sotheby’s will conduct over several days for the estate, which consigned close to 2,000 items. The proceeds will benefit the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, furniture, decorative objects and jewelry. Works last night ranged from an early 17th century still life of tulips by the Dutch painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the elder, to an abstract, mostly blue painting by Richard Diebenkorn completed in 1982.

Eight paintings and works on paper by Diebenkorn sold for $32.2 million. The four paintings by the American modernist artist were led by “Ocean Park No. 89,” which sold for $9.7 million against an estimate of $8 million to $12 million.

Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series, which depicts light and landscape through abstract, ethereal colors, is coveted for its rarity. “Ocean Park No. 50” fetched $8.2 million. It had been valued at $7 million to $9 million. The 7.8-foot-tall “Ocean Park No. 61,” which was estimated at $8 million to $12 million, sold for $6.8 million.

Salad Bowl

“Ocean Park No. 89” was purchased by fashion designer Valentino Garavani and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, who were seated together in the front row. The designer, who has a noted art collection, entered the bidding late and won the painting at the hammer price of $8.5 million.

The other artist who was represented in force was the mid-century modernist painter Nicholas de Stael, with five works offered.

Fierce bidding broke out for the artist’s “Le Saladier” from 1954, an oil painting depicting a glass salad bowl set against a flat black background. Estimated to sell for $400,000 to $600,000, at least four phone bidders and several people in the room pushed the final price to just over $2 million.

Three other paintings by the artist sold for well above their high estimates, including an almost completely abstract painting in purple, red, white and grey from 1952, “Paysage (Paysage Au Lavandou),” which was valued at $700,000 and fetched $1.7 million.

Creating Excitement

Another artist with standout results was Diego Giacometti, the younger brother of the artist Alberto Giacometti, and a close friend of Bunny Mellon. A white painted bronze table with a bird and dragon perched on its stretchers was commissioned by Mellon for her house in Antigua. It carried an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000, and sold for $1.7 million.

Another highlight was the still life by Bosschaert the elder. Estimated to sell for $3 million to $4 million, the painting fetched $4.7 million.

Some of the sale’s success may be attributed to the relatively low estimates that Sotheby’s submitted.

“It’s always easier for an auction house to get an estate where they don’t have to use aggressive prices to entice a seller to sell,” art adviser Asher said. “And that, of course, creates excitement.”

The next sale from the Mellon estate will be the “Jewels and Objects of Vertu” auction at Sotheby’s on Nov. 20 and 21, which will include a fancy vivid blue diamond pendant estimated at $10 million to $15 million.

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