Christie’s Will Offer 5 Works From the de Menil Family, Including a Masterpiece Rothko Held Onto Until His Death

The 1962 painting has a $35 million to $45 million estimate.

Mark Rothko's Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), (1962).

Five years after Mark Rothko completed Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) in 1962, it caught the taste-making eye of collector Dominique de Menil, who swiftly requested the painting for an exhibition she was organizing of work by midcentury masters. A decade after that, Rothko’s painting again fell under the affectionate gaze of a de Menil family member—but this time it was Dominique’s son François and his wife Susan. This time, he bought it.

Now, that beloved work is changing hands for the first time since the Menil couple acquired it in 1979. The work will be sold at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art evening sale on November 15 with an estimate of $35 million to $45 million. Architect François de Menil and his wife Susan are also selling another four works by pioneering artist Joseph Cornell in the same sale from their personal collection.

The Rothko is one of a number of heavyweight consignments Christie’s has secured this fall, including a Bacon from the collection of Si Newhouse and a potentially record-setting pool painting by David Hockney.

The Rothko lot for the November sale was made at an important moment in the artist’s career, after he made his Seagram murals (originally for the Four Seasons) but before the Dominique and John de Menil had commissioned him to create the Rothko Chapel in Houston. With dark blue and rusty red rectangles on a deep purple background, the moody painting illustrates the artist’s deftness with darker palettes. The painting is unlikely to beat Rothko’s current auction record of $86.8 million, set in 2012—but that work, Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), also carried a $35 million to $45 million estimate.

Francois de Menil, an heir to grandfather Conrad Schlumberger’s oil fortune, bought the work from Pace Gallery in 1979, months before it went on view in the artist’s retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that same year. The collector and his partner are offering it alongside the work of a very different American artist. Prices for the majority of the Cornell works, created between the late 1930s and 1948, are available by request, though his shadow box, Untitled (Medici Slot Machine) (1942), is estimated at $5 million.

Though the artists practices were disparate, both worked around the same decades and held each other in high regard. In a letter from Rothko dated to 1959, the painter told Cornell, “I wish I could approach your genius for expressing to people how you think about them and what they do.”

The de Menil name is synonymous with art patronage: Next month, the Menil collection will unveil its 30,000-square-foot Menil Drawing Institute in Houston. Some undoubtedly must have hoped that Francois might have donated the work to the Menil Collection, of which he is a board member and he and Susan are founding benefactors.

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