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Record-breaking Macklowe Art Collection Art Auction Turns Transcendence Into A Transaction


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Art managers hang Mark Rothko’s No.7, part of the Macklowe Collection, at Sotheby’s, NY, November 5.ANGELA WEISS / AFP / Getty Images

Sotheby’s auction house has just sold an abstract painting by Mark Rothko which offers “a portal to the sublime”. And he sold a work of “deep beauty and elegiac grace” by Brice Marden, as well as an immense painting of flowers by Cy Twombly which evokes a “duality between fertility and decadence”.

From the descriptions in the auction catalog, you would have thought that these paintings by modern American masters represent a transcendence of the material world, but the disheartening spectacle of the sale of the Macklowe Collection reveals the truth: Art does not equal what money.

Of course, Sotheby’s was not discouraged. On Monday night, he hammered 35 pieces from the collection of New York developer Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife Linda for $ 676 million. This was Sotheby’s best sale ever for a sole proprietorship – and proved to those who care that the market remains robust with persistent demand for art created by the old white men of the 20th century. century. Strategically assembled by insightful Linda Macklowe over five decades, the collection features works from the greatest names in post-war American and European art, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Pablo Picasso, many of which were performed at pivotal moments in artists’ careers.

By superimposing the superlatives with a palette knife, the Sotheby’s catalog indicates that lot 20 “is the epitome of the imposing abstraction and the rich and deep connotations that define and distinguish Franz Kline’s inimitable pictorial work” . And Lot 22, a 1993 abstraction by German artist Gerhard Richter, is “an extraordinary example of… a series of paintings widely recognized as the preeminent enterprise in abstract art of the past fifty years.”

The more copywriters blow and blow, the more you know that these circular arguments for the greatness of art are only meant to drive up prices. The high-end auction market often tries to equate ineffable cultural achievements with million dollar hammer prices, but the case of the Macklowe Collection reveals this paradox in its most obscene aspect.

The hapless Macklowes, both aged 80 and separated after 59 years of marriage, were forced to sell their collection as part of their divorce settlement. This 2018 judgment by New York County Supreme Court Judge Laura Drager says a lot about what art meant to the couple.

The divorce was bitter: The New York press rejoiced over the story of how Linda Macklowe found out that her husband had kept another woman in a nearby apartment building for two years and how, when he left remarried, Harry Macklowe plastered 13 meters high. tall photographs of himself and his new wife in a Park Avenue building he owned – in view of his ex-wife’s apartment.

In their divorce action, Harry requested the sale of the collection, but Linda offered to keep it, selling the pieces necessary to support his lifestyle, while he keeps the real estate. The two parties could not, however, agree on the value of art. His estimate was much higher because his lawyers deducted the cost of selling the art from its value. After all, Sotheby’s does not operate for free.

The judge rejected this method of accounting and decided that the only way to place a value on art was to ask the market and then divide the proceeds. This week the market reacted loudly, and that was only half the art. A second group of 35 works will be sold next May and could then break Christie’s record of $ 835 million for the sale of the David Rockefeller collection in 2018. Halfway through, Macklowe’s total is already approaching l Harry’s highest estimate for the entire collection.

In rejecting Linda’s offer to keep the art, the judge concluded that while the couple appreciated the aesthetics of the art collection, “the collection also served as a device to preserve and increase their personal wealth.” She noted that this was by far their biggest investment; that they sold as well as they bought and, more revealing, that by doing their estate planning, they had made no arrangements to donate the art or establish a private foundation that could take care of it after their death. . This is what one would have expected them to do if they thought the collection was an achievement that should be kept intact, or that individual pieces were so important that they belonged to the world – of especially since Linda has been a director of the boards of directors. from the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim.

Depending on their tax status, a donation could also have made financial sense. For wealthy individuals who have seen the value of long-standing collections explode, tax credits for a donation valued at these high prices can be as useful as the proceeds of a sale that would be subject to tax on most. -values.

Collectors sometimes say they don’t own their art, they’re just keeping it for future generations – and an obvious place to do so is inside a public art gallery. God knows that museums are imperfect institutions – as their current struggles to decolonize their collections reveal – but they still retain the ability to take art off the market and elevate it towards these transcendent aspirations. In the sad case of the Macklowe Collection, the art has turned out to be as sublime as a wheelbarrow full of poker chips.

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