By CAROL VOGEL, The New York Times
Better known as a prolific donor — especially to his cherished Museum of Modern Art — David Rockefeller has decided to throw his hat into the auction arena, selling a seminal painting by Mark Rothko for what the auction house hopes will be more than $40 million.
With prices for Abstract Expressionist works hitting new highs, Mr. Rockefeller has consigned “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),” a 1950 canvas, to Sotheby’s for its May 15 sale of contemporary art. Sotheby’s $40 million estimate is nearly twice the previous auction record for a Rothko painting — $22.4 million, set at Christie’s in 2005 — and is clearly a gamble that the Rockefeller name will make the painting more valuable.
“This may be the last time you see it here,” Mr. Rockefeller, 91, said yesterday, gesturing toward the painting, which was hanging in solitary splendor on a prominent wall in his Rockefeller Center office.
The painting is a particularly sensuous example of Rothko’s abstract work during his most important years. It will be the star of the sale at Sotheby’s, which has consistently lagged behind Christie’s in recent years and has been aggressive about securing prestigious property for this spring’s auctions. While experts at both houses said they had offered Mr. Rockefeller a guarantee — a minimum sum the seller receives regardless of a sale’s outcome — market experts and dealers said Sotheby’s had trumped Christie’s by offering him $46 million.
For watchers of the art market, the big question is whether that gamble will pay off.
Mr. Rockefeller has owned the painting since 1960, when he bought it for less than $10,000 from Eliza Bliss Parkinson, the niece of Lillie P. Bliss, one of the three founders of MoMA. Mrs. Parkinson had bought the painting from Rothko in 1960 through the artist’s dealer, Sidney Janis.
Back then, abstract paintings were not particularly Mr. Rockefeller’s cup of tea. He gravitated toward more conventional works, particularly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. But he said that Dorothy C. Miller, the first curator hired by MoMA (in 1934), urged him to acquire the Rothko, with its luminous horizontal bands of color.
Mr. Rockefeller was a vice president of Chase Bank in 1960 and had played a role in forming its art committee. While Chase was one of the first institutions to form an important corporate art collection, he said, most of his fellow bankers were too conservative even to consider something as adventurous as a Rothko.
So with Ms. Miller’s endorsement, Mr. Rockefeller scooped it up for himself, and since then it has always hung in his office, enjoying pride of place as his first Abstract Expressionist painting. (Now his collection also includes works by Willem de Kooning and Sam Francis.)
Mr. Rockefeller’s name is most closely associated with his gifts to MoMA, including a $100 million pledge, the largest cash gift in that institution’s history, in April 2005. He has also bolstered the museum’s holdings by donating priceless paintings, sculptures and drawings by masters including Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso.
John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, said Mr. Rockefeller had called him before consigning the painting to Sotheby’s. “He asked me if this was something we had to have,” Mr. Elderfield said. “We don’t need it. We already have five Rothkos from the 1950s.”
Mr. Rockefeller said: “I’ve given the Modern a great many paintings and am giving them more, but the museum already has so many Rothkos. I can use the proceeds for other things.”
He said that in November, during a periodic appraisal of his art collection, he noticed to his surprise that of all his paintings, the Rothko had appreciated in value the most. “That got me thinking,” he said.
He chose Sotheby’s over its archrival, Christie’s, he said, because Sotheby’s experts had approached him about selling it first.
While Tobias Meyer, director of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, confirmed that the house had given Mr. Rockefeller a guarantee, he would not disclose the amount. The $46 million figure has been circulating among dealers, collectors and auction house experts. Mr. Rockefeller declined to discuss his financial arrangements with Sotheby’s and said it was too soon to say what he planned to do with the proceeds from the auction, although he added that much of it would go toward philanthropic causes.
In the meantime, he said, he is trying to keep up with developments in contemporary art. On Monday he returned from London, where he stopped by the Tate Modern to see what was on view.
“And from time to time when I’m in New York, I go to galleries with Glenn and John,” he said, referring to Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Mr. Elderfield. “Its not always my taste, but I’m always open to seeing what’s new.”