Auction Record for Robert De Niro Sr., Painter

Artwork sells at Sotheby's far beyond its estimate.

Robert De Niro, Jr. and Sr.
Photo Courtesy de Niro

A work by Robert De Niro, Sr., set a record in the first appearance at auction of the mid-century painter since the HBO documentary on his life premiered earlier this month.

Son Robert De Niro Jr., narrates the short film, which makes a compelling case that his father was a gifted and influential member of the New York School who was marginalized, even doomed, by personal problems and whipsawed shifts in taste.

The senior De Niro’s 30-inch-high untitled, signed work from 1971 soared to four times its pre-sale estimate at Sotheby’s “Contemporary Curated” sale but still brought only a quite modest $31,250. 

It’s only the second time in over a decade that the New York artist’s work has appeared at one of the top two auction houses. For years they traditionally traded at the top regional players (Doyle New York, Leslie Hindman, Skinner Auctions, Rago) for about $5,000 to $11,000.

Robert De Niro, Sr., Untitled, (1971) Courtesy Sotheby's

Robert De Niro Sr., Untitled (1971)
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Shown early in his career—at age 23—at Peggy Guggenheim’s historic Art of This Century Gallery, De Niro is lauded in the documentary by such art world players as Robert Storr, dean of the Yale Art School and formerly a top curator of The Museum of Modern Art. De Niro studied with Josef Albers and German-born painter Hans Hofmann. Critic Clement Greenberg, early on, praised De Niro‘s “originality and force” as a painter. The artist, we learn in the documentary, went on to cover the floor of his studio in Paris in later, less successful, years with those early raves. The film’s speakers argue that the senior De Niro’s depression, cancer, and discomfort with his own homosexuality took a toll on both his artistic development and his fame. He was also suspended somewhat between two movements: He gained fame and acclaim as something of a European modernist but was deemed too figurative when Ab-Ex ascended and too painterly when Pop Art took over.

His estate was perhaps further disadvantaged to be represented by Salander O’Reilly Gallery, which De Niro chose before his death in 1993 but which declared bankruptcy in 2007 amid lawsuits and charges of fraud and theft.

DC Moore Gallery has a show of the artist’s works up through July 31, with prices of works from throughout the artist’s career priced in the five and low six figures. Ironically, in the documentary, De Niro Sr. notes in a letter how jealous he was that Willem de Kooning made $15,000 a year from his work.

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