A $40 Million Rothko Painting From the Estate of Thomas H. Lee Will Test the Market at Paris+ This Week

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It’s a Rothko moment in Paris.

The week’s main curatorial event is, undoubtedly, the retrospective of 115 works by Mark Rothko at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the first survey of the Abstract Expressionist master’s entire oeuvre in France since 1999. Loans come from the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., the Tate in London, and the artist’s family collection.

So it’s fitting that the week’s main commercial event, Paris + par Art Basel, will have a big Rothko as well. That work, (1956), will be offered for $40 million by Pace, the gallery said.

Almost eight-feet-tall, the canvas will be the centerpiece of Pace’s thematic booth about the artist’s legacy, with newly commissioned works by the gallery’s artists including Robert Longo, Adam Pendleton, and Loie Hollowell, as well as secondary pieces by Rothko’s contemporaries including Agnes Martin, Richard Pousette-Dart, Antoni Tàpies, and Adolph Gottlieb.

Putting together the exhibit, however, there was one problem: “It’s a really interesting booth, but we didn’t have a Rothko,” said Pace president Marc Glimcher. “All the Rothkos will be at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. We didn’t want to put a Rothko in a booth unless we had something great.” was a last minute consignment to fill that rather important hole.  

The painting is the second high-value Rothko on the market at the moment. Former casino magnate Steve Wynn consigned his 1955 to Christie’s, where it’s estimated at $45 million, after not finding a buyer at $60 million at Art Basel in June. Both works will test the Rothko market at a moment of great geopolitical volatility.

used to be the prized possession of financier Thomas H. Lee, who died of suicide earlier this year. Several key works from his collection have been offered for sale privately in recent months.

 

Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum's Sutton Place apartment photographed during an event in 2019. Works by Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, Fred Eversley, and Andy Warhol are on view. Photo by Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com ©BFA 2023.

Thomas H. Lee and Ann Tenenbaum’s Sutton Place apartment photographed during an event in 2019. Works by Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Mark Rothko, right, Fred Eversley, and Andy Warhol are on view. Photo by Matteo Prandoni/BFA.com ©BFA 2023.

Glimcher said he sold the painting to Lee for $1.9 million in 1995. At the time, the auction record for Rothko was $3.6 million, according to the Artnet Price Database.

“I really took him to the cleaners on this one,” Glimcher said. “It was a beautiful painting, which had belonged to the Baltimore Museum of Art.”

The museum sold the painting for $1.04 million at Sotheby’s in 1988, in order to buy Andy Warhol’s 35-foot-wide . (In 2020, that painting was slated for controversial deaccessioning too, until the museum pulled it in the 11th hour under pressure.)

has a “classic early 1950s format,” Glimcher said—a tall, thin painting. It’s been hanging in Lee’s living room for years and hasn’t been seen publicly since 1971, according to Pace.

Lee never loaned out the painting because of the logistics, Glimcher said. Because of its size, the work had to come out of the window with a crane, which is exactly how it came out in order to be shipped to Paris.

The last big price achieved at auction for a Rothko was $82.5 million for a similarly-sized painting, (1951), from the Harry and Linda Macklowe Collection at Sotheby’s in November 2021. Six months later, two wider 1960s canvases sold by the estate of Anne Bass fetched $66.8 million and $49.6 million.

“The market for the most expensive paintings is a little bit lower right now,” Glimcher said. “We wouldn’t normally bring a Rothko to an art fair, but it’s a very special circumstance. It’s an uncharacteristically dignified presentation for an art fair booth.”

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