Robert Rauschenberg’s Haunting Silkscreen of JFK Could Sell for $50 Million at Christie’s This Spring

The work is part of a trove from the estate of Robert and Beatrice Mayer that is expected to generate $125 million.

Robert Rauschenberg, Buffalo II (1964). Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

The long-subdued market for the artist Robert Rauschenberg is in for a jolt this spring, when the artist’s silkscreen Buffalo II (1964) hits the block at Christie’s with an estimate in the region of $50 million. The work is part of the blue-chip collection of the late Chicago philanthropists Robert and Beatrice Mayer, which also includes Chinese ceramics and Impressionist paintings. All told, the works from their estate are expected to fetch at least $125 million at auction.

Undoubtedly the most anticipated lot in the collection is the Rauschenberg, which will almost certainly shatter the artist’s existing auction record of $18 million, set at Christie’s in 2015. At over eight feet tall, it’s one of the largest of the artist’s silkscreen paintings and was created the same year he became the youngest artist and the first American ever to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale. Made soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it depicts the leader alongside motifs that defined America for the artist, including the space race, the military, and iconic consumer products.

As Bloomberg points out, the couple bought the painting from fabled art dealer Leo Castelli for $16,900—which means the work stands to make their family a whopping 300,000 percent return.

Meyer, a founding member of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and an heiress of the Sara Lee baked good fortune, began collecting European art with her husband Robert Mayer. By the 1960s, they had moved on to the then-more affordable realm of contemporary art. After Robert Mayer’s death in 1974, Beatrice began a loan program to send works from her 2,000-strong collection to 35 university-affiliated museums around the country.

Roy Lichtenstein, The Kiss III (1963). Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Roy Lichtenstein, The Kiss III (1963). Image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

At its contemporary art evening sale on May 15, Christie’s will offer the Rauschenberg as well as other highlights from the estate, including Andy Warhol’s Liz (1963), one of his highly prized renderings of actress Elizabeth Taylor, which is expected to sell in the region of $20 million, and Roy Lichtenstein’s Kiss III (1962), estimated in the region of $30 million.

The Pop work was painted the same year that Lichtenstein had his first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery. It’s a classic example of the artist’s practice of taking comics and enlarging the imagery with meticulous detail. “Lichtenstein was clear that his works should be viewed for their formal qualities rather than their enticing subject matter,” according to a statement from Christie’s.

The Mayer collection will be offered across several auctions, starting with Christie’s 20th Century Week in May. The house will hold a dedicated sale of 11 lots on May 15, right before the postwar and contemporary evening sale begins. Other works will be included in the evening sale of Impressionist art on May 13. Throughout the month, Christie’s will offer 43 lots with an expected total estimate of $125 million. Additional works will be offered over the course of the year.

The collection as a whole does not carry a financial guarantee, according to a Christie’s spokesperson. She was unable to confirm which individual works might be guaranteed to sell.

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