Sotheby’s Is Hoping to Shake Up a Quiet Auction Season by Raking In $35 Million for This Rare Mark Rothko Painting

It's one of the auction house's marquee lots this fall.

Mark Rothko, Blue Over Red (1953). Courtesy of Sotheby's New York.

Sotheby’s has announced one of its heavyweight lots for the fall auction season in New York: Mark Rothko’s 1953 painting Blue Over Red.

The picture, which has been in the same private collection since 2007, last appeared at auction in 2005, when it fetched $5.6 million. This time around, it is estimated to sell for between $25 million and $35 million. The work—which carries a guarantee, meaning it is certain to sell—will be on public view at the auction house beginning November 1. The sale is scheduled for November 14.

The announcement is notable in part because the Rothko is one of handful of eight-figure lots hitting the block at a time when collectors appear reluctant to part with top-notch items or are increasingly opting to sell them privately. In the first half of 2019, total auction sales of works over $10 million dropped by 35 percent compared to the first half of 2018, according to our recent artnet Intelligence Report. And that trend looks set to continue into the marquee fall season.

The Rothko dates to a key year in the artist’s career, and was made as he was developing his signature style of abstraction, featuring hazy fields of luminous color. Of the 16 canvases he completed in 1953, half belong to museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

“Some of the most moving paintings Rothko ever made date to the year 1953,” David Galperin, the head of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auctions in New York, said in a statement. “Paintings from the much-lauded period of the early ‘50s are incredibly rare to auction, with this November marking the first time a painting executed in 1953 has been offered at auction since 2006. The exuberant palette and atmospheric depth of his Blue Over Red reflects the mastery of this transformative period in Rothko’s career.”

The painting’s title may be a reference to Henri Matisse’s paintings The Blue Window and The Red Studio, which Rothko would have encountered at the Museum of Modern Art, which was just down the street from the studio he moved into on 53rd Street in 1952. “Sunlight poured into his new high-ceilinged studio, resulting in these intensely vivid, brightly-colored paintings that appear to be illuminated from within,” said Galperin.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1960). Sold by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the painting went for $50 million at Sotheby’s in May. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Dealer and collector Harold Diamond bought the work directly from Rothko in 1957. It was one of seven works by the artist in his collection; three are now in museums. From there, Blue Over Red passed to Baltimore collectors Israel and Selma Rosen, who were the sellers back in 2005.

The auction record for a work by Rothko is $86.8 million, set at Christie’s New York in 2012, according to the artnet Price Database. (In May, Sotheby’s sold a Rothko for $50 million on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Should Blue Over Red meet its $35 million high estimate, it would be the 16th most expensive lot in the artist’s name.

The upcoming contemporary art evening auction has only one other lot expected to hammer above $20 million, a Willem de Kooning painting also estimated at $25 million to $35 million. The piece, Untitled XXII (1977), is being sold by art dealer Robert Mnuchin. The next biggest lot on offer is Clyfford Still’s PH-399 (1946), which is expected to bring in between $12 million and $18 million.

There is a similar top price point in Sotheby’s November 12 Impressionist and Modern art evening sale, which includes Claude Monet’s 1906 work, Charing Cross Bridge (estimated at $20 million to $30 million), and Property of a Gentleman (1884) by Gustave Caillebotte (expected to earn between $18 million and $25 million).

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