The $158m sale of works from Mrs. Paul Mellon’s estate at Sotheby’s last night was a surprise success to many but each for different reasons. Some were concerned that the legendary Mellon name, now eclipsed by time, might not appeal to the new “global” buyers populating the art market. Others deemed Mrs. Mellon’s taste too personal and eclectic, not driven by the names in fashion among today’s buyers. For others, the Rothkos just weren’t that big.
Last night, none of that mattered as Sotheby’s conducted a masterly “white glove” sale. Everything sold. The vast majority of lots sold above the estimates suggesting, in many cases, that the Mellon name was still something powerful to conjure with. But not all of the works lived up to expectations.
Bloomberg’s James Tarmy got the art world download:
“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.”
Carol Vogel went to the taste-making establishment (and former business partner of the estate’s advisor):
“History, legend, taste — you had everything tonight,” Lionel Pissarro, a great-grandson of the painter Camille Pissarro and a Paris-based art dealer, said after the auction.
Though Vogel did find some dissenting opinions about the works:
“It’s all in a name,” Rachel Mauro, a Manhattan dealer, said as she was leaving the sale.
Kelly Crow summed up the Rothko sales that composed nearly half of the night’s total in two lots. Both works were bought directly from Rothko’s dealer in the year of his suicide:
A European bidder paid Sotheby’s $39.9 million for Mark Rothko’s untitled, indigo-colored abstract from 1970, over its $20 million high estimate. A sunset-hue Rothko, “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” also sold to dealer David Nahmad for $36.5 million.
Judd Tully dug into the one disappointment of the evening, Mrs. Mellon’s taste for Diebenkorn, a market that seemed to be crying out for new, high-quality supply to make a market statement:
Richard Diebenkorn was the other postwar standout in the Mellon sale, with eight works in oil and works on paper from the artist’s famed Ocean Park series on offer, including (lot 11) the square format “Ocean Park #89” from 1975, majestically scaled at 81 by 81 inches, that sold to Giancarlo Giammetti, business partner and companion of the famed designer Valentino, for $9,685,000 (est. $8-11 million). Provenance wise, the Mellons acquired it in the primary market that very year from Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York.
The other big Diebenkorn oil, (lot 18) “Ocean Park #61” from 1973 and wall hugging at 93 by 81 inches, sold to San Francisco dealer Gretchen Berggruen of the John Berggruen Gallery for $6,773,000 (est. $8-12 million).
“It’s a great painting,” said Berggruen as she departed the salesroom, “and I was little surprised it didn’t go higher.”
The Diebenkorn group made $32.2 million.
In truth, the Diebenkorns that sold well were small, on paper or board and more sharply defined like Ocean Park #99 which made $3.6m or more than two times the high estimate including fees. Tully also did his homework. Although Mrs. Mellon was known to cut out images from auction catalogues (and have them framed) of works she didn’t win, few of last night’s works had an auction history:
Though the auction was a whopping success, the couple rarely bought work at auction. In fact, the majority of the collection was acquired through various private galleries in New York, Paris, and Basel, including (lot 8) Georges Seurat’s compact yet stunning conte crayon on paper, “Femme Tenant un Bouquet” from circa 1882, that sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a blooming $5,317,000 (est. $2-3 million). Paul Mellon gave it as a Christmas gift to this wife in 1956. It came from Wildenstein & Co.
But the one lot that did have record was part of another large group of works. Showing a consistent taste, Diebenkorn was influenced byde Staël, last night’s sale had five works by Nicolasde Staël, an artist who was once most successful in the US but recently (2011) set a record price in a Paris auction.
Only one of the lots had auction history, a Nicolas de Stael work, one of five in the evening sale, which sold at Christie’s London in 1990 for £176,000 ($287,863). Tonight, the small-scaled de Stael, (lot 15) “Paysage bord de mer” from 1954, sold for $425,000 (est. $100-150,000).
In the end, the artist whose visibility might have been increased by this sale was de Staël.
Mellon’s Single-Owner Sale Shatters Expectations at Sotheby’s (BLOUIN ARTINFO)