Rachel Lambert Mellon, known as Bunny, was an ardent supporter of Mark Rothko. The iconic abstract expressionist's dark blue-purple work from 1970 sold for nearly $40 million on Monday night in a "white-glove auction" of 43 masterworks from Mellon's vast and varied collections.
The Sotheby's evening sale toppled its high estimate total of $121 million with prices that were buoyed by Bunny Mellon's renowned "eye." All 43 lots sold.
On offer in this first sale of a series were some of the best works that Bunny and her late husband, Paul Mellon, acquired over decades. The philanthropic couple had already donated hundreds of artworks to museums prior to Bunny's Mellon's death in March at age 103.
Richard Diebenkorn, another artist that Bunny Mellon championed, was well represented in the sale. The artist's "Ocean Park No. 89" slipped below its $12 million high estimate to fetch $9.6 million.
Competition fired up for another Rothko from 1955, "Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange." Nahmad Gallery prevailed, taking the piece for $36.5 million (estimate: $20 million-$30 million).
A Georgia O'Keeffe painting of a Canadian barn, from 1932, brought $3.2 million from a telephone bidder.
Winslow Homer's "Children on the Beach" took in $4.5 million, within the estimates.
Several lots soared well above estimates, including Eva Gonzales's "Bouquet de Fleurs," which brought $1.5 million from a $300,000-$400,000 estimate.
Furniture by Diego Giacometti (brother of Alberto) also sold briskly above estimates. A 1970 coffee table with birds, estimated to bring $200,000-$300,000, climbed to $1.7 million.
“The bidding was big, was broad, was frantic,” Sotheby's auctioneer Oliver Barker said after the sale. “We saw bidding from literally all over the world. … We are absolutely delighted.”
Bidding will continue later this month for thousands of more artworks, objects and items from Mellon's estate. Proceeds benefit Oak Springs Garden Library, one of the world's largest collections of horticultural published works, set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains on Bunny's 4,000-acre estate in Upperville, Va. The library aims to become an “educational public institution.”