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.)