Meet the Extraordinary Art Collectors Behind the Top Lots Heading to Auction This Week

A spotlight on several of the extraordinary art collectors whose work is heading to sale in the tentpole fall New York auctions

Bunny and Paul Mellon. Photo courtesy Sotheby's.

It’s auction week again in New York, and all the big houses are showcasing their best and biggest lots. But the auction houses shouldn’t get all the credit for bringing these works under one roof. Behind every impressive auction lot is a visionary collector, and this year is no exception. Sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips are all boasting work sourced from some of the most impressive individual collections in the world.

Here are six of the more interesting and influential figures behind the superstar works going to auction this week.


A portrait of Bunny Mellon with her son, Stacy (far right). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Bunny Mellon

BORN: 1910
DIED: 2014
HOMETOWN: Princeton, New Jersey
COLLECTING FOCUS: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Modernism
BACKGROUND: The Mellon Family Collection going on sale at Sotheby’s this week technically belonged to Stacy B. Lloyd III, who passed away earlier this year. However, the majority of the lots can be attributed to Lloyd’s mom, Bunny Mellon, widely considered to be one of the great art collectors of the 20th century.

Bunny Mellon, born Rachel Lowe Lambert, was an heiress to Jordan Lambert, who founded Listerine in the late 19th century. Lambert married Paul Mellon, the heir to the Mellon estate. At the time of their nuptials, he was one of the richest men in the world—not to mention a notable art collector himself. Despite having no formal training, Bunny Mellon was a highly accomplished gardener and landscape designer, responsible for designing the gardens of the Mellon estate, Oak Spring Farms, as well as the White House Rose Garden. Mellon was also close friends with Jacqueline Kennedy and advised the first lady on arts and antiques for the Kennedy White House restoration as well.

Lloyd, Bunny, and Paul Mellon’s son inherited the family’s collection when his mother passed away in 2014.


Claude Monet’s Champ d’iris à Giverny (1887). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.


  • Claude Monet, Champ d’iris à Giverny (1887) (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 14)
  • Camille Pissarro, Jeanne dite Cocotte, et Ludovic Rodolphe Pissarro sur un tapis (ca. 1883) (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 14)
  • Nicolas De Stael, Le Phare (Antibes) (1954). (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 14)
  • Winslow Homer’s, Noon-day Rest and Two Men Scything (ca. 1879) (Sotheby’s American Art Sale, November 13)


Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and her husband Carl Spielvogel. Photo by Will Ragozzino/Getty Images.

Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel

BORN: 1932
HOMETOWN: New York City, New York
COLLECTING FOCUS: Modern and contemporary works on paper
BACKGROUND: Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s list of accomplishments is almost as long and unique as her name. Author of 23 books and numerous articles and essays, she is a former White House assistant, the first director of cultural affairs in New York City, and the longest-serving New York City landmarks preservation commissioner in history. In 1996, she was appointed to the U.S. commission of fine arts by president Bill Clinton, becoming the first woman vice chair in the commission’s history.

Diamonstein-Spielvogel’s passion has long been works on paper, perhaps because, as a writer, she shares the medium. “Works on paper are the most profound expression of the artist’s intent, I believe,” said Diamonstein-Spielvogel in a statement. “There are many parallels between the visual and literary arts, well beyond their shared use of the medium—both pursue the elusive, and require discipline and astute thinking in order to successfully articulate the author’s intent.“

All the profits from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection sale will be donated to charity.

Jasper Johns’s Numbers (2006). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.



  • Pablo Picasso, Combat de taureau et cheval (1935) (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Sale, November 14 and 15)
  • René Magritte, La Réponse imprévue (Ca. 1963) (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Sale, November 14 and 15)
  • Jasper Johns, Numbers (2006) (Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale, November 16 and 17)


Jean Stein, 1998. Photo courtesy Sotheby’s. © Brigitte Lacombe.

Jean Stein

BORN: 1934
DIED: 2017
HOMETOWN: Los Angeles, California
COLLECTING FOCUS: Modernism, Contemporary Art, Photography
BACKGROUND:  Jean Stein’s art collection was largely shaped by the list of artists in her life. And there were many.

The daughter of Jules Stein, who founded the media conglomerate Music Corporation of America, Jean came into contact with notable names throughout her young life. In school, she sat for Alberto Giacometti in his studio. She profiled Saul Steinberg for LIFE in 1965. Dennis Hopper introduced her to curator Walter Hopps (a mentor and lifelong friend), who in turn introduced her to Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Before she sold her house to media mogul Rupert Murdoch in the mid-’80s, she commissioned William Eggleston to photograph it. In 1982, Stein wrote Edie: American Girl, a best-selling biography of Warhol’s famous factory girl, Edie Sedgwick. She also co-founded the literary journal and visual arts publication Grand Street with Hopps.


René Magritte ‘s La Voix du sang (1947). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.


  • René Magritte, La Voix du sang (1947) (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 14)
  • Alberto Giacometti, Femme assise (La Mère de l’artiste) (1947) (Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 14)


Anne Marie and Julian J. Aberbach. Photo courtesy Phillips.

Anne Marie and Julian J. Aberbach

BORN: Julian Aberbach was born 1909; Anne Marie was born in 1930.
DIED: Julian died in 2004; Anne Marie, in 2017.
HOMETOWN: Vienna, Austria
COLLECTING FOCUS: Impressionist and Modern Art
BACKGROUND: The son of a successful jeweler in Vienna, Julian J. Aberbach grew up in Austria before relocating to Paris with his brother in the 1930s. He was drafted into the military at the onset of WWII and served several years as an instructor at a French military school. After being discharged in 1944, he founded the music publishing company Hill and Range, and throughout the next couple of decades, was responsible for launching the careers or some of country and pop music’s greatest stars, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles.

Aberbach met Anne Marie while in Paris when he asked her—a stranger at that point—to assist him in picking out lottery numbers. Not long after, the two married and eventually moved to the United States. The Aberbachs began collecting paintings in the 50s, on their frequent trips to Europe, and went on to amass a collection of works by Francis Bacon, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, and many others.


Pablo Picasso’s Portrait de femme endormie. III (1946). Image courtesy of Phillips.


  • Pablo Picasso, Portrait de femme endormie. III (1946) (Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 16)
  • Pablo Picasso, Deux Nus (1920) (Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 16)
  • Henri Matisse, Jeune fille dormant a la blouse roumaine (1939) (Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 16)
  • Henri Matisse, Jeune fille accoudée (1938) (Phillips’ 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 16)


Scott Gentling, Portrait of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass (1998). Watercolor. Collection of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass, Fort Worth. © Gentling Estate Artwork © 2017 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass

AGE: Perry was born 1914; Nancy was born in 1917.
DIED: Perry died in 2006; Nancy, in 2013.
HOMETOWN: Fort Worth, Texas
COLLECTING FOCUS: Impressionism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism
BACKGROUND: Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass have been referred to as the “Medicis of Fort Worth” for their vast cultural contributions to the Texas berg. The couple, who were together for more than 65 years, have donated millions to multiple Forth Worth institutions and financed the city’s Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall.

Perry Bass was raised in Wichita Falls, Texas, but educated at the Hill School in Pennsylvania, and then at Yale in New Haven. After graduating from the Ivy League in 1937, he moved back to Texas. In the ’40s and ’50s, he worked for his uncle on his ranch, and after his uncle’s passing inherited his oil and ranching interests, worth several million dollars. Nancy was born and raised in Fort Worth, graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1937. The two married in 1941.

The couple began first began collecting in the early 1960s when they acquired paintings by Serge Poliakoff and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Flash forward 40 years, and Nancy Lee and Perry Bass had amassed one of the most significant collections of Impressionist, Modern, and Post-war art in the United States. The majority of their collection has since been donated to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Despite that fact, many notable pieces have made it to this week’s auctions, including Miró’s Peinture (1933) and Matisse’s Le regates de Nice (1921).


  • Joan Miró, Peinture (1933) (Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 13)
  • Vincent van Gogh, “Laboureur dans un champ” (1889) (Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 13)
  • Marc Chagall, Le cirque à l’Arc-en-Ciel (ca. 1969) (Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 13)
  • Kees van Dongen, Portrait de Madame Malpel (1908) (Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, November 13)
  • Mark Rothko, Untitled (1969) (Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 15)


Fernand Léger, Contraste de formes, painted in 1913. From the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York.

Fernand Léger’s Contraste de formes (1913). From the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York.

Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen

BORN: Stephen Kellen was born in 1914; Anna-Maria was born in 1918.
DIED: Stephen Kellen died in 2004; Anna-Maria, in 2017.
HOMETOWN: Both Stephen and Anna-Maria were born in Berlin. Anna-Maria attended school in Paris before immigrating to America at the onset of World War II. Stephen came to the States by way of London, where he worked as a banker in the ’30s.
BACKGROUND: Stephen Kellen was a successful investment banker and made his name as president, CEO, and co-chairman of Arnhold & S. Bleichroeder Holdings Inc. He married Anna-Maria in 1940, and they stayed together until Stephen’s death in 2004.

Together Stephen and Anna-Maria co-founded the American Academy in Berlin, creating a foundation which is named after them. She served as a member of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs for 10 years, five years as co-chair of the mayor’s award of honor for arts and culture, and was a member of the Met for 66 years. The couple made many gifts to the Met, notably funding an endowment fund for German art. She was an honoree trustee of both the museum and Parsons School of Design.


  • Fernand Léger, Contraste de formes (1913). (Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale )

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