Paul Allen’s Rothko Sells for $56.2 Million at Phillips in N.Y.

May 15, 2014 11:55 pm ET

May 16 (Bloomberg) -- A Mark Rothko painting owned by Microsoft Corp. co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen helped boutique auctioneer Phillips sell $132 million worth of art, capping two weeks of marathon sales in New York.

Estimated at $50 million to $60 million, “Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange)” attracted bids yesterday from four staffers competing on behalf of clients. August Uribe, senior director and worldwide co-head of contemporary art at Phillips, placed the winning bid of $50 million, or $56.2 million with fees.

The 1955 painting accounted for 43 percent of the evening’s tally, which fell within the estimated range. Of the 46 offered lots, nine failed to sell. The auction drew a younger crowd -- bearded men in tailored suits and truckers hats -- than Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Leonardo DiCaprio watched the sale from a crowded skybox in the Park Avenue salesroom, where plenty of Philippe Starck-designed transparent chairs remained empty.

“The bidding was much more vigorous than it’s been in a while,” Michael McGinnis, chief executive officer of Phillips, said after the sale, listing participants from Asia, South and Central America, Europe and the U.S. “It means it’s a really deep market.”

Phillips, owned by Russian luxury retailer Mercury Group, was the last in a string of six evening auctions of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art that tallied $1.9 billion this month. Last May, both evening and day sales in these categories at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips totaled $1.5 billion. Phillips’ day auction takes place today.

Market Bubble

Rothko’s seller was Allen, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be named because the information is confidential. Ashley Wilson of Vulcan Inc., which manages Allen’s personal investments, declined to comment on his behalf.

The consigner bought the work in November 2007, during the art market bubble, when it fetched $34.2 million at Christie’s, according to the Phillips catalog. He was guaranteed an undisclosed minimum price regardless of the sale’s outcome.

To promote the painting, Phillips published a separate catalog dedicated to the work, including essays and archival photographs.

On May 13, Christie’s sold Rothko’s 8.5-foot-tall 1952 canvas layered with purple and orange for $66.2 million. It went to Xin Li, Christie’s deputy chairman in Asia, on behalf of a telephone client.

Younger Artists

Four pieces by emerging artists made between 2011 and 2013 were flipped by their owners to capitalize on rising prices.

The Phillips auction began with Alex Israel’s arched 2013 canvas, “Untitled (Flat)” that fetched $581,000, above the high estimate of $300,000. Painted apricot-red and sky-blue at the Warner Bros studio in Burbank, California, it drew multiple bids on the phones and in the room. On May 12, Israel’s first artwork at auction soared to $1 million at Christie’s.

Four lots later, a 2011 trompe l’oeil canvas by Tauba Auerbach reached $1.8 million, surpassing the high estimate of $1.2 million. The winner was art dealer Andrew Fabricant, director of Richard Gray Gallery in New York. The price set a record for Auerbach, one of three records of the evening.

Market darling Oscar Murillo’s 2012 canvas marked with scribbles and a word “Pollo” was chased by several hopefuls including art adviser Kim Heirston. It sold for $389,000, more than twice the high presale estimate of $150,000.

Sultry Canvas

At least six bidders competed for Dana Schutz’s sultry 2004 canvas “Reformers,” which sold for $605,000, twice the high estimate and an auction record for the more established artist.

Daniella Luxembourg, co-owner of New York and London-based Luxembourg & Dayan Gallery, won Wade Guyton’s 2006 untitled canvas marked with his signature X’s for $2.2 million, above the high estimate.

Works by blue-chip names mostly stayed within their estimated ranges. “Zenith,” a 10-foot-tall by 22-foot-wide canvas painted in 1985 by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, sold for $11.4 million, a record price for a collaborative work between the two artists. Film producer Stavros Merjos won Warhol’s “Flowers” for $10.2 million

Several bidders chased after a Jean Dubuffet’s primitivist 1981 canvas. At one point, intense, loud knocking came from the skybox, where DiCaprio was with Christie’s specialist Loic Gouzer and art dealer Hillel Helly Nahmad, who was sentenced earlier this month to a year and a day in prison for his role in a high-stakes gambling ring -- an unorthodox bidding method. Auctioneer Alexander Gilkes announced that “the skybox” won the work for $605,000.

The evening sale was the highest tally for Phillips since November 2010.

“Phillips usually has a hard time getting material,” Tony Shafrazi, a New York art dealer, said after the sale. “But all in all they did surprisingly well.”