Sotheby’s auction of ‘Bunny’ Mellon’s artwork in NYC garners $158.7M |
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Natasha Lindstrom
Pablo Picasso's 'La plage,' 1901, from the collection of Rachel 'Bunny' Lambert Mellon sold at auction for $700,000 on Monday, Nov. 10, 2014.

NEW YORK — More than three dozen masterworks amassed over a lifetime by reclusive billionaire Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon generated auction sales totaling $158.7 million Monday night.

“The bidding was big, was broad, was frantic,” Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker said shortly after he dropped the hammer on the 43rd lot in the New York City auction. “We saw bidding from literally all over the world. … We are absolutely delighted.”

Eager collectors exceeded Sotheby’s high estimate of $121 million and snapped up 100 percent of the pieces, many of which had been concealed for decades behind the private doors of Bunny, second wife to Pittsburgh philanthropist Paul Mellon and heiress to the Listerine fortune.

The socialite, who died in March at 103, earned admiration among the wealthiest of her peers for her exquisite yet understated taste.

“You can see that, yes, people are coming for the works, but they’re also coming for Mrs. Mellon,” Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist Grégoire Billault said. “This is the best of America.”

Hundreds filled the room on the seventh floor of Sotheby’s auction house in the Upper East Side to participate in or witness the heated bidding in person, the auctioneer flanked on either side by frenzied representatives engaging hungry collectors by phone. The bidders were from 32 countries across four continents, drawn to the event not only for the world-class art but the allure of owning a piece hand-picked by Bunny.

“She had incredible, impeccable taste, and I think you can see from the very spirited bidding tonight that people really responded to that,” Barker said. “She had an extraordinary eye.”

The stars of the night were two oils from one of Bunny’s favorite artists, American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

Rothko’s “Untitled” from 1970 — a dark-hued expanse that could be the artist’s last piece before he took his life that spring — drew eight bidders and sold for $39.925 million, about double its pre-auction estimate.

“It’s quite touching and interesting that this blue is almost between blue and lilac, which is not something you see a lot with Rothko,” Billault said. “This is just a gem.”

The second Rothko, “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” attracted five bidders and sold for $36.565 million. It was a 1955 oil painted shortly after the artist developed his signature motif of soft, rectangular forms floating in fields of color. Both Rothkos had been in the Mellons’ collection for more than four decades.

Though Bunny coveted her privacy and avoided the limelight, her influence spread through her elite admirers and famous friends like Jackie Kennedy, whose personal style was influenced heavily by Bunny, said Alexander Forger, her executor, personal attorney and family friend.

Contemporary and post-war works dominated the auction, bringing in a combined $116.6 million, though the collection spanned four centuries, dating back to 17th-century still lifes.

Most works depicted landscapes or elements of nature, reflecting Bunny’s fervent passion for gardening and “greening America.” At the request of the first lady, she designed the White House Rose Garden and East Garden, and prepared the flowers for President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

“This was not meant to be in any way a didactic collection,” Barker said. “It wasn’t focused on any one particular period, but it was about the harmony of beauty and objects that reflect nature.”

Eight paintings from Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series sold for a combined $32.2 million, led by “Ocean Park No. 89” for $9.685 million.

At least two still lifes brought in nearly quadruple their pre-auction estimates: Eva Gonzalez’s “Bouquet de Fleurs” sold for $1.565M, and Nicolas de Stael’s “Le Saladier” for $2.045 million. Five pieces by Nicolas de Stael exceeded their high estimates.

Meanwhile, a bidder picked up a 1901 Pablo Picasso, “La Plage,” an oil of family on a beach, for $700,000 — roughly half its estimated value.

George Seurat’s 1882 “Femme tenant un bouquet,” a Christmas gift from Paul Mellon to his wife in 1965, sold for about double its estimate at $5.317 million. Three sculptures by Diego Giacometti, a longtime friend of Bunny, also exceeded estimates, with “Table au dragon a l’oiseau” selling for $1.745 million.

The Mellon auction proceeds will go toward Oak Springs Garden Library, one of the world’s largest collections of horticultural published works, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on Bunny’s 4,000-acre estate in Upperville, Va. The windfall will enable the library to evolve into an “educational public institution” that draws students of botany from around the world.

“The extent of that activity will in some measure depend on the endowment and the focus of the director, who’s yet to be chosen,” Forger said.

The masterworks auction marked the first of three evenings devoted to Bunny Mellon’s collections. More than 2,000 items are up for bid later this month between the next two auctions, jewels and objects de vertu; and interior property.

“To have an entire auction devoted to the collecting of Mrs. Paul Mellon over a lifetime gives you a wonderful view into her world,” Sotheby’s jewelry specialist Lisa Hubbard said. “I think of her as iconic, a woman whose taste was established and who most of all had a great sense of self.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected].

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