Brett Grovy has been reminiscing about the legendary collector Ben Heller on his Instagram feed recently. Over the New Year holiday, he posted about Mark Rothko’s No. 9 (White and Black on Wine) which is one of the centerpieces of the Glenstone collection, one of the world’s leading private art collections.
In his enthusiasm to post a celebration of a great picture, an amazing provenance and a career highlight, his musings eventually came to this:
The painting carried with it a curse. For some unexplained reason, Bill Rubin had spread a rumor that the work was damaged, perhaps jealous of Heller’s sale at Sotheby’s. The picture could not shake this rumor mill, despite several examinations by the top Rothko conservators.
We also brought in the experts to allay any lingering doubts. Nothing was found. But on the night of the auction itself, someone actually called a renowned Rothko dealer in the sales room, just as the Lot was being offered, knowing that he would be bidding on this masterpiece. Fortunately the dealer was not swayed by the repeated claims, and went on to buy the work for a record $16.4 million. He was acting on the behalf of the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, where it resides today amongst other seminal Abstract Expressionist masterpieces.
David Nash chimed in with his own war story:
Bill Rubin was absolutely adamant that this painting was badly damaged when he lent it to an exhibition, unwillingly, but at Rothko’s express request. When it came back from the exhibition it had a huge area of damage, according to Rubin. At Rothko’s suggestion the damage was repaired by a conservator named Lebron who was notorious for completely repainting works by AbEx artists. Rubin sold the painting to Heller who put it up for auction many years later at which time Rubin vigorously denounced Sotheby’s (and me!) for not making any announcement about the condition. […] Rubin’s unyielding position about the damage to his painting has remained one of the unsolved mysteries. This man was the powerful chief curator of MoMA and not somebody to dismiss lightly!
These musings have had the unfortunate effect of raising questions about the Rothko’s condition when it was sold by Christie’s in 2003. Though the condition of the painting should not be an issue at this point. Glenstone is an ambitious collection that has already been established as a private museum. The collection’s trajectory is most likely institutional meaning that it is unlikely that a tentpole work like the massive Rothko would ever be on the market again.
As an institution, Glenstone also has access to the best conservators (and would have satisfied itself before the sale with independent reports that work was in acceptable condition.)
Rothkos are not immune to problems. The most extreme example of a Rothko restoration in an institutional setting is the Harvard murals whose colors have been restored through an innovative lighting solution. But there has been no suggestion either during the sale or since that the condition of No. 9 would affect its price.
Indeed, the subsequent path of the Rothko market makes the $16.4m purchase of No. 9 an extraordinary buy. In 2014, the equally imposing 10′ x 15′ canvas No. 20 (Yellow Expanse) from 1953 was sold privately from the estate of Bunny Mellon. The sale which Bloomberg speculated was in the $300m range was a package of three works. But the yellow Rothko dominated the three and would have taken the lion’s share of the value.
A back of the envelope take would suggest Glenstone bought its Rothko for 1/10th of what was paid a decade later.
So why are we talking about William Rubin? That’s the mystery to all of this. As Nash points out in his Instagram comment, William Rubin’s position at the Museum of Modern Art makes his comments and behavior not-easy-to-dismiss. The sale also took place when Rubin was 75 years old and in failing health. What would cause him to go to great lengths to interfere with an auction may never be known.
Certainly with the current unanimity of opinion on its condition, Rubin’s concerns about the work seem to have remained his own.
Indeed, there are suggestions that the phone call Gorvy cites in his Instagram post was not from William Rubin at all. It was another interloper.
Gorvy, for his part, is surprised at the reaction the post has created within the art dealing community. When contacted about the controversy, he responded:
This is ancient history and without any proof against this work other than muck stirring. You can imagine the number of tests that were done on this picture by the top experts and it was blatantly clear that Rubin had no basis. Quite the opposite. This is exactly the type of bad reporting that creates rumor and worse.