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A history of Rothko’s priciest work, from billionaire to billionaire

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in On Balance, the ARTnews newsletter about the art market and beyond. Sign up here to receive it every Wednesday.

When news broke last month that Christie’s had sold a Mark Rothko painting for $100 million dollars through a private sale, rumors percolated through the art world about who might be the seller. The somewhat obvious choice was Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who in January had lost his high-profile suit against Sotheby’s, part of a decade-long affair alleging that erstwhile art dealer Yves Bouvier had bled him of $1 billion dollars over roughly 10 years and numerous art transactions. The painting in question, then, would have to be Mark Rothko’s 1951 painting No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red).

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A history of Rothko’s priciest work, from billionaire to billionaire

The piece is among Rothko’s best; it graces the cover of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, compiled by David Anfam, one of the foremost Rothko scholars. “Greatness only comes in one size, and this was it,” Anfam told ARTnews via WhatsApp. The painting has Rothko’s hallmark touch—Anfam said the paint was applied as if it were “breathed onto the canvas”—and that places the work within the category of “special” when it comes to the Abstract Expressionist’s masterpieces. 

To fetch such a price, though a far cry from the $186 million that Rybolovlev paid for it nearly a decade ago, especially in a softening art market that for the last year has been tempered by high interest rates and global calamity, is no small feat. But then again, No. 6 is among those works that, like Agnes Martin’s Grey Stone II(1961) that sold for a record-breaking $18.7 million at Sotheby’s New York last fall, defy the state of the market.

Bouvier agreed. For years he had been hoping to buy No. 6 from the Moueix family, wine producers in France who had owned the painting for decades. According to parties familiar with Bouvier’s business practices, the Swiss dealer had for years been visiting the Moueix family château in Bordeaux—buying cases of wine in an effort to woo them. And as often as possible, he would buy small works from their collection so that, should they ever want to sell the Rothko, which hung in a gloomy, unused living room, his name would be on the tip of their tongues.

Rybolovlev had seen the work in Anfam’s catalogue raisonné and, according to the New Yorker, “told Bouvier he would do anything to acquire the painting.” Bouvier eventually bought No. 6 from the Moueix family for $80 million and then offered it to Rybolovlev with a premium of more than $100 million. Rybolovlev accepted, but, for the first time in their relationship he didn’t want to pay cash.  Instead, he asked Bouvier to sell off or trade some of his collection for the Rothko, no simple task, given what Bouvier paid a collector for a work and what Rybolovlev would eventually pay. The Rothko sale became the first sign that Bouvier was not being fully transparent with Rybolovlev. The years that followed would be filled with a string of lawsuits Rybolovlev filed against Bouvier, from Geneva to Hong Kong, and finally New York.

According to CNBC, it was hedge fund billionaire and Citadel CEO Ken Griffin who bought Rothko’s No. 6. One of the world’s top collectors, known for a sterling collection of art ranging from Post-Impressionist to contemporary works, Griffin bought Jasper Johns’s 1959 painting False Start from David Geffen in 2006 for a reported $80 million. His collection is also thought to hold a Willem de Kooning that he bought, also from Geffen, for $300 million.

Recently, works by Rothko have had a strong showing in public auctions. At Christie’s last fall during the marquee November sales, the incandescent Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), 1955, sold for more than $46 million, $10 million more than it fetched at auction a decade prior, according to Emily Kaplan, Christie’s senior vice president and cohead of the 20th-century evening sale. The current record for a Rothko at auction, however, is nearly double that, at $86.9 million (against a high estimate of $45 million), when Christie’s sold his 1961 Orange, Red, Yellow in 2012.

Recent interest in Rothko has soared since curator Suzanne Pagé and the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, mounted a headline-grabbing exhibition of his work last fall at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. That’s not to say that Rothko needed the boost in reputation, but, in a way, it serves to remind the market once again to take up shelf-stable masterpieces. His deep, often luminous, works are among the world’s most recognizable, a fact that the exhibition proved by bringing together works that are rarely, if ever, seen in the same room.

No. 6 hasn’t been seen in public since it was last shown in Paris in 1972, and that piece and Homage to Matisse (1953) were two of the few A++ works that weren’t in the Louis Vuitton show. The show, which closes in less than two weeks, “is a proper tour de force,” said Sotheby’s chairman of contemporary art Grégoire Billault. “I think for a lot of people it’s been a revelation. I don’t know if those pictures will ever be together like that again.”

A market shift toward reliable blue-chip abstraction and away from wet-paint contemporary pieces might be in the offing. “In a market which has been very much about young artists and figuration, I think it makes sense that abstraction seems to be moving to the forefront,” Billault said. “There’s something so quiet and serene and beautiful that works by Rothko and Martin give to viewers,” Billault continued, referring to the latter artist’s Grey Stone II (1961). “I think today, in a world that is such a mess and so violent and so hard politically and socially, we need that.”

Sotheby’s, too, has had great success selling Rothko’s work at auction despite a weakened market. This past November, an untitled work on paper from 1968 earned $24 million against a $10 million high estimate during the fall sales, and the fall 2021 Harry and Linda Macklowe collection sale saw the artist’s 1951 No. 7 sell for $82.5 million, just under its $90 million high estimate. “In a way,” Billault said, “Rothko is like Picasso and van Gogh. He’s market proof.”

“The market is obviously down right now, but $100 million for a Rothko is definitely the record price,” said Pace Gallery CEO Marc Glimcher. Pace has done a lot of work over the years with the estate, and Glimcher authored the 1991 book The Art of Mark Rothko: Into an Unknown World. According to Glimcher, No. 6 is on par with Rothko’s Homage to Matisse (1954), which sold for $22.4 million at Christie’s in 2005, and SFMoMA’s famous No. 14, 1960 . “He’s really the artist that proved abstraction, and there aren’t many of his truly great paintings left in private hands,” Glimcher said. “We are still setting records. And even when the market is down, something great will still get the attention it deserves.”