The divorcing billionaire and his wife fought over it. Auction houses fought over it. And on Monday night, bidders fought over it.
An impressive part of the collection amassed over five decades by the real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his former wife Linda, an honorary trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brought a total of $676.1 million, in a testament to the enduring strength at the top of the art market. Brooke Lampley, a Sotheby’s executive, called it “the most valuable single-owner auction ever staged.”
Auction-high prices were set for Jackson Pollock, whose “Number 17, 1951,” from his Black Paintings series, sold for $61 million with fees, and for Agnes Martin, whose “Untitled #44,” featuring slender bands of subtle color, sold for $17.7 million.
Among the evening’s top lots were Alberto Giacometti’s craggy 1964 sculpture “Le Nez” (“The Nose”), which sold for $78.4 million, above the $70 million estimate, and Mark Rothko’s luminous painting “No. 7,” from 1951, which sold for $82.5 million with fees to an unidentifiable Asian bidder. It was the second-highest auction price for a work by this Abstract Expressionist artist and exceeded its $70 million low estimate.
“It’s a strong market,” said Eugenio López Alonso, the collector and fruit juice heir, as he was leaving the sale on Monday. “Top quality always sells.”
The sale, the first of two parts — the second one is scheduled for May — was closely watched as a test of an art market that is slowly emerging from the pandemic. Monday night’s trove had been estimated at $400 million.
Auction sales have been looking for a boost, having declined 30 percent, to $17.6 billion in 2020 from $25.2 billion in 2019, according to the latest Art Market report, published by Art Basel and UBS, bringing the market to its lowest level in a decade.
The Macklowe Collection also signified a shot in the arm for a market that has suffered from a scarcity of top-quality inventory, with demand exceeding supply.
The 35 works offered on Monday evening — which ranged from postwar to contemporary, and which all sold — were among the fruits of the Macklowes’ acrimonious divorce proceedings, which resulted in a court-ordered auction.
The bidding was especially vigorous for lots including Philip Guston’s “Strong Light” in his signature pink tones ($24.4 million), and for Gerhard Richter’s vibrant painting “Abstraktes Bild” ($33 million).
The art dealer Andrew Fabricant said that Linda Macklowe was the main collector in the couple and that he had sold her many of the pieces in Monday’s sale.
“She had an abiding love for abstraction, but she also had a great eye for figuration,” Fabricant said. “Every single work in here is subtle and unique.”
Among the major prizes was Andy Warhol’s haunting 1962 “Nine Marilyns,” a metallic silk-screen considered one of his best early serial images. It sold twice — the first time was a bidding error — and ultimately went for $47.3 million. Cy Twombly’s massive 2007 “Untitled” canvas of dripping red peonies sold for $59 million and had the same estimate.
Trends in the market played out in the salesroom, namely the strong buying from Asia, which accounted for 30 percent of the auction house’s total sales last year.
The Macklowe sale came on the heels of a strong showing of 21st-century works at Christie’s last week, where the market’s growing interest in female artists and artists of color was in evidence. A colorful 1999 abstract painting by Stanley Whitney attracted five bidders and set an auction high for the artist at $1.2 million.
Given the absence of artists of color in Monday’s sale and the scarcity of women — just Agnes Martin and Tauba Auerbach were included — the auction to some symbolized a chapter from the past. “This is the collection of a generation that’s passing — an old white man’s collection,” said Adam Lindemann, the gallerist and collector. “Yes, these things are always going to be great, but is this what a young tech billionaire wants? I don’t think so.”
The dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn disagreed. “They may be focused on the hot new thing,” she said of young collectors. “But they also want to be part of history.”
Christie’s sale on Thursday of the Impressionist art collection that belonged to the Texas oilman and philanthropist Edwin Cox, who died last year, brought a total of $332 million, over a high estimate of about $268 million; the Getty Museum bought Gustave Caillebotte’s “Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (Young Man at His Window)” from 1876 for $53 million. (After the sale, a Getty curator called it a “masterpiece.”)
The wealthy continue to view art as an attractive asset class, and some are also buying in anticipation of President Biden’s proposed tax increases on those who earn more than $10 million a year.
Thousands flocked to preview the Macklowe collection — which traveled to Taipei, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, London and Paris before returning to New York — knowing it may be their last chance, at least for a while, to see prized works of art before they disappear into private hands.
Given the joy the art brought Linda Macklowe over a half-century, Fabricant described the court-ordered auction as something of a sad conclusion.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said, “that the collection had to be dispersed in this fashion.”