Rachel ‘Bunny’ Lambert Mellon’s collections to sell at auction
One afternoon in the 1950s, Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon wandered into artist Mark Rothko's New York City studio and became engrossed in his paintings.
Equipped with deep pockets and decisive taste, Bunny didn't hesitate.
“I bought 13 of them,” she breezily told Vanity Fair writer James Reginato in April 2010, during the first interview she'd allowed in four decades. The impromptu purchase instantly made Bunny one of the largest private collectors of the blossoming abstract expressionist, whose work now is among the most coveted of postwar American artists.
Bunny, who died March 17 at 103, did not amass a world-class art collection by following trends or buying “the best” du jour. If she did, she would have spent much of the 1950s and '60s snapping up the likes of Monets from Paris.
Instead, Bunny — heiress to the Listerine fortune, close friend to Jackie Kennedy and second wife to billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon — simply knew what she liked and went for it.
“She never bought art for investment,” said Alexander D. Forger, Mellon's executor, personal attorney and family friend. “She bought art because she loved what she saw, no matter who painted it.”
Two Rothko paintings, priced at $15 million to $30 million each, are among 43 masterworks from the “Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon” up for public bidding this week at Sotheby's auction house in New York City. The star is “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” a 1955 oil capturing daybreak from Rothko's artistic prime; the other an untitled dark-hued expanse from 1970 that could be the artist's last piece before he took his life that spring.
The rest of the lots range from contemporary abstracts to 17th-century still lifes that were concealed for decades behind the Mellons' doors, executed by renowned artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Edouard Manet and Georgia O'Keeffe.
“If you want an A-plus-plus Rothko, this may be your last chance,” said Sam Berkovitz, director of Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square.
The first of three Sotheby's auctions this month is scheduled for Monday and will feature more than 2,000 items from Bunny's collections of art, jewelry, furniture and eclectic decorative pieces that adorned the Mellons' private residences in the United States and abroad. Sotheby's billed the showcase, expected to top $100 million, as “one of the last great private American 20th century collections.”
“The era of big houses that required to be fitted with beautiful things may be coming to an end,” said Judith O'Toole, CEO and director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
Reginato, who has covered the likes of famed hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, Oscar-winning film producer Steve Tisch and the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, told the Tribune-Review that Bunny had “a level of refinement that we're probably never going to see again.”
“Everybody's talking about it,” he said of the auction.
Lens into a private world
Excitement among elite collectors aside, the auction provides an unprecedented look into the life of one of America's most reclusive socialites, known for her exquisite yet understated taste, masterful gardening skills and major contributions to the National Gallery of Art, the Washington museum conceived by Pittsburgh banking titan and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.
“The name Mellon is one of the few that conjures up associations with great American collectors of the Gilded Age like Frick, Carnegie and Morgan,” said Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze. “We wouldn't have many of our most beloved museum experiences without the legacies of collectors like these.”
Kicking off the auction will be a 5- by 7-inch 1952 Rene Magritte gouache ($300,000 to $500,000) of Earth eclipsing a planet-sized apple, a surrealist portrayal of connections between objects.
“It's very delicate, it's amazingly smart and bright — it's just Bunny's world,” said Grégoire Billault, Sothe-by's contemporary art specialist.
Many items echo Bunny's passion for gardening, including porcelain cauliflower, asparagus and melon tureens ($7,000 to $30,000); early agricultural tools ($2,000 to $3,000); and a gold bracelet with watering can and wheelbarrow charms ($2,500 to $3,000).
Bunny's astute eye for decorating and her expertise in horticulture earned her the admiration of Jackie Kennedy, for whom she designed the White House Rose and East gardens, and arranged the flowers at President John F. Kennedy's funeral.
“They had similar interests in beauty, in art, in design and in nature,” said Forger, whose 45-year relationship with Bunny began with a professional referral from the first lady. “Jackie O. got so much of her sense of style from Bunny.”
The Sotheby's collections reflect what Kennedy and other admirers appreciated about Bunny's style — namely, that she struck an impressive balance between sublime elegance and understated simplicity.
“Living with beauty was an art she mastered,” Hall said.
In the Sotheby's catalog for her interior property, a $60,000 to $80,000 rare set of George III dining chairs, tens of thousands of dollars worth of Hermes and Louis Vuitton bags, and an $18,000 set of Queen Anne silver candlesticks can be found alongside a $200 cast-iron boot scraper, a $100 rustic blue bench and a 1947 miniature watercolor of an apple valued at $40.
Bunny was not one to boast, and she would downplay valuables in the way she decorated, such as propping up an unframed masterwork on a chair, Reginato said.
“She was fiercely independent of conventional thinking, not just with what she owned, but with the way that she lived with it,” said Louise Lippincott, a curator at Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.
That unapologetic confidence reverberates throughout the auction lots, which will occupy all six of Sotheby's exhibition floors.
“She had a great sense of self and nothing to prove,” Sotheby's jewelry specialist Lisa Hubbard said.
Bunny's status enabled her close relationships with prominent jewelry designers — Verdura, Schlumberger and Givenchy — and she owned some wildly lavish pieces.
The most expensive up for auction is a 9.75-karat blue diamond pendant ($10 million to $15 million).
Yet she also wore costume jewelry, and even her higher-end pieces generally weren't ostentatious enough to turn heads at a swanky soiree, Hubbard said.
Proceeds from the auction will go to the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation to fund Oak Springs Garden Library, a priority of Bunny's housed in a whitewashed stone structure on her 4,000-acre Upperville, Va., estate.
She bequeathed to the foundation a 10,000-volume horticultural archive, along with 100 acres of land and the French provincial-type cottage in which she and Paul lived.
The library and its rare manuscripts are accessible by appointment only to the occasional “serious” researcher. But once the auction money becomes available, the library will evolve into a “public educational institution” for scholars, students and advocates of botany, sustainability and “the greening of America,” Forger said.
“We will have collaborative activities with major national botanical gardens; we will be partners in giving joint degrees to students; we will have convocations and gather scholars worldwide to participate,” Forger said. “There will be some gardening, perhaps pruning.”
Perhaps, too, the immaculately tended gardens and trove of expertise Bunny left behind will ensure her influence transcends her death. Ever so subtly, of course.
“It all should give the feeling of calm,” Bunny told The New York Times in 1969 of her approach to garden design. “When you go away, you should remember only the peace.”