Throughout the past two years, record-breaking sales at multiple auctions made headlines in the international art market. Two pieces of digital artwork at separate auctions in 2021 set new records for the third-highest sales attained by a living artist, and the international art broker Sotheby’s concluded its 2020 debut in virtual high-end art auctions with the then-highest online bid for an art piece, among 13 other new records. Sotheby’s caught the art world’s attention again in November 2021 as the auctioneer for the Macklowe collection, a trove of valuable works owned by Harry Macklowe and Linda Burg before their divorce in 2016. Art sold at the auction drew in a combined $676 million, the largest amount for a single-owner auction in Sotheby’s history.
Amassed over the course of 57 years of Macklowe and Burg’s marriage, the collection comprised 65 pieces of artwork and reflected practiced refinement and a thorough understanding of quality. It contained prized masterpieces by various high-profile artists whose works typically continue to grow in price regardless of market conditions. With pieces by Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, and Jackson Pollock among its contents, the Macklowe collection was one of the most coveted in the art world. As such, Sotheby’s lauded it as the grandest collection of contemporary art to enter the art market.
The Macklowe collection earned Macklowe and Burg a reputation in art circles as highly regarded collectors prior to their divorce. A longtime art curator as well, Burg located most of the collection’s works and received an honorary trustee appointment in 2016 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for her commitment to art and education. Contention over ownership of the collection emerged between Macklowe and Burg during the divorce proceedings, which resulted in a court order to liquidate all of its works and split the profits.
The auction in November contained just over half of the collection’s pieces. Ahead of the event, the owner of Sotheby’s predicted that it would make history and estimated its profits at $400 million. In addition to surpassing these expectations, the final $676 million in sales represented the largest of any Sotheby’s auction across the auction house’s 277-year history. Pre-sale exhibitions of the Macklowe collection attracted over 27,000 visitors, and more than 300 art enthusiasts participated in the auction.
Of the 35 pieces auctioned off in November, Rothko’s 1951 tri-color painting, No. 7., received the highest bid at $82.5 million. The sale marked the painting’s first time on auction, as well as the second-highest price for one of the late abstract artist’s works. Other pieces sold included Pollock’s enamel painting Number 17, 1951 and a canvas of red peonies in acyclic and crayon by Twombly, which went for $61 million and $58.9 million, respectively. Additionally, many works received bids that exceeded their estimated value by millions, such as pieces made by Agnes Martin, Philip Guston, Andy Warhol, and Gerard Richter.
Sotheby’s plans to hold an auction for the Macklowe collection’s remaining works in May 2022. Experts in art auctioning suspect that this auction could make history by breaking additional records given the success of the first one. If profits reach similar levels, then the Macklowe collection will best the late David Rockefeller’s art collection as the most-expensive ever sold. Rockefeller’s collection sold for $835.1 million in 2018.