Blockbuster Collections Could Deliver More Than $1 Billion at Auction This Spring. For the Major Houses, the Race Is On

Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips are all competing for the Macklowe and Donald Marron collections.

Check out all of our reporting on the Fall 2019 Auctions in New York. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Auction in action. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The old art-world adage that the “three Ds”—debt, divorce, and death—are the main forces driving masterpieces to the market is ringing truer than ever with the spring auction season on the horizon (perhaps minus the debt). Several art collections estimated to be worth north of $1 billion combined are expected to hit the block this year, marking a considerable boost from a fairly mediocre 2019.

The acrimonious—and at times seemingly endless—divorce proceedings of real-estate titans Harry and Linda Macklowe has resulted in the court-ordered sale of a stunning modern and contemporary collection worth upwards of $700 million. It took almost a year for the Macklowes to come to an agreement on a court-approved middleman or “receiver”—far exceeding the judge’s 45-day deadline—which has given the major auction houses plenty of time to hone their pitches. Now, observers say, the collection could be coming to the block as soon as this May.

Harry Macklowe and Linda Macklowe. Photo Patrick McMullan/A. Scott.

Harry Macklowe and Linda Macklowe. Photo Patrick McMullan/A. Scott.

On the flip side, the sudden death of longtime patron and avid art collector Donald Marron, who passed away in December at age 85 from a heart attack, has put his own massive blue-chip collection, reportedly worth around $450 million, in play. According to Bloomberg, Marron’s heirs have already invited auction houses to submit bids for the right to sell the collection.

The recent deaths of other top collectors, including the 92-year-old Denver-based cable television mogul Ginny Williams and the 91-year-old self-taught art expert Hester Diamond, may push even more blue-chip works toward the auction block this year. Williams assembled an enviable collection of Modern art headlined by such female masters as Helen Frankenthaler and Louise Bourgeois; Diamond started out buying the best of Modernism before switching to Old Masters.

All of this has made for a furious pace of business-getting activity at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips, as specialist teams work to assemble competitive proposals. The stakes are even higher because recent seasons have offered a relative dearth of trophies. In fact, in 2019, the sale of works priced $10 million and up dropped a staggering 35 percent, according to Artnet Analytics.

It’s not surprising, then, that the likelihood that both the Macklowe and Marron collections will hit the auction block this spring has jolted the art world into high alert.

Donald Marron. Photo: patrickmcmullan.com

Donald Marron. Photo: patrickmcmullan.com

The Race Begins

No one we spoke to appeared concerned about the possibility of bringing so much “A” material to auction at once. The art-market’s theory has always been that there will be demand for the best of the best no matter what.

But if houses have to bid high or make extraordinary guarantees to secure collections, they’re going to want to bring those trophies to the block as soon as possible to balance the risk on their books. “There are probably more guarantee asks in the market by total value than at any single moment in history,” says Evan Beard, a managing director of fine art services at Bank of America Private Bank. He estimates the figure is at least $1 billion.

Another key factor in the rush? The upcoming US presidential election in November, which several sources said collectors and auction houses alike want to get ahead of, especially when it comes to seven- and eight-figure works.

Now, the game is on for market-watchers to predict who will win the battle for business. Some say Sotheby’s new owner Patrick Drahi could bid big in an effort to make a splash in his first major season at the helm. But others suggest that Sotheby’s state of flux—with ongoing cost-cutting layoffs and new leadership still finding its footing—could count as a strike against the auction house, if it even wants to make a major play for the material at all.

“We know [Christie’s owner François] Pinault and his family have an appetite for risk on big deals,” observed Michael Plummer, co-founder of the advisory firm Artvest Partners. “It remains to be seen whether Drahi has the same kind of appetite. You have to be a certain type of individual to bet so much on these major sales, and also, Drahi may have plans to focus his capital on entirely new businesses, separate and apart from the auctions.”

Some have wondered whether real-estate mogul Harry Macklowe’s business connection to Phillips might also be a factor. His firm owns the building that will eventually become their new headquarters—the same one he infamously draped with a giant photo banner of himself and his new wife last March.

The facade of Phillips auction house in New York City. Courtesy of Phillips.

The facade of Phillips auction house in New York City. Photo Credit: Rommel Demano/BFA.com; Courtesy of Phillips.

Is $1 Billion Just The Start?

Last November’s New York auctions at the three major houses pulled in a combined $1.1 billion. The Macklowe and Marron collections have the potential to account for that, or more, on their own.

Of the two collections, Macklowe is the easier read, mostly because so much has been made public as a result of divorce proceedings. An Andy Warhol Marilyn estimated to be worth $50 million, nine works by Picasso, a Jackson Pollock worth up to $35 million, roughly a dozen works by Jeff Koons (including a $10 million bronze sculpture Vest with Aqualung), and a $12 million Brice Marden are among the trophies headed to the block.

In all, there are 165 artworks that New York judge Laura Drager ordered the couple to divide and sell as their 59-year marriage came to a bitter end. Last October, Artnet News learned that veteran art dealer Michael Findlay had been appointed as receiver of the collection, tasked with overseeing the sale of the massive trove. In 2015, the year before the Macklowes began their divorce, Christie’s provided an insurance appraisal of the entire collection at $937 million.

Though Artnet News understands Findlay retains decision-making authority with respect to dispersal of the collection, former Christie’s global chairman of 20th-century art, Laura Paulson, is helping advise Linda Macklowe. Tobias Meyer, a former Sotheby’s contemporary specialist who advised on the sale of the late SI Newhouse’s collection at Christie’s last spring, is advising Harry Macklowe. As former rainmakers at rival auction houses, Paulson and Meyer are no strangers to being on opposing sides.

Harry and Linda also initially hired individual experts to evaluate the artwork, resulting in appraisals that were often millions, and sometimes tens of millions, of dollars apart. According to the Macklowes’ separate valuations in late 2018, the fair market value of the collection could range anywhere from $625.6 million to $788.7 million.

Andy Warhol's signed dollar bill ahead of auction at Sotheby's. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Andy Warhol’s signed dollar bill ahead of auction at Sotheby’s. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Inside the Marron Collection

There may be less information publicly available about Marron’s holdings, but there is plenty of anecdotal and reported buzz about what the financier acquired over his long collecting career. Marron, who assembled a corporate collection in the decades he was involved in finance, was also a generous donor to and former president of the the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

According to Bloomberg, stars of the Marron collection include a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar and a 1957 Mark Rothko canvas. The record for a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar is $95 million, according to the Artnet Price Database, set at Sotheby’s in 2006; the record for Rothko from 1957 is $46 million, while the artist’s overall auction record is $86 million.

With too march art to fit in his Upper East Side apartment, Marron also leased two rooms in the Fuller Building, according to a remembrance of the collector by Michael Shnayerson. They housed works by Mark Bradford, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Mark Grotjahn, Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, Jonas Wood, Albert Oehlen, Richard Prince, and Laura Owens. The display also included younger artists Marron was a fan of, such as Christian Marclay, Djordje Ozbolt, and Harmony Korine.

It is not yet clear how much of this trove will be sold at auction, and what might be kept by the family or donated to institutions. Regardless, the competition is well underway.

Additional reporting by Julia Halperin


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