They are probably the only couple to have had the distinction of being married by an auction house specialist who was also a rector. When Anne Windfohr and John Marion wed in 1988—she an heiress to a Texas oil and ranching fortune, and he the chairman and chief auctioneer at Sotheby’s—the officiant was Hugh Hildesley, a longtime Sotheby’s specialist who’d left the house in 1983 to become rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, not far from Sotheby’s headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Hildesley had been close enough with Marion at Sotheby’s to call in a similar favor years before. “I asked John to give me away when I was made rector in charge of the parish,” said Hildesley. “So when he called me back a little later and said, ‘I met this wonderful woman whom I want to marry—can you perform the wedding?’ I said, ‘That’s the very least I can do.’”
It was a quiet ceremony, followed by a rollicking reception. Anne was marrying a celebrity in the art world, a man who over the course of decades conducting auctions at Sotheby’s had become so synonymous with the phenomenon of art auctions that he’d played himself on The Cosby Show. In a profile in 1990, the New York Times described him, towering at 6-foot-2 over the lectern in Savile Row suits, with his “blue eyes behind aviator-style glasses … somehow manag[ing] to make eye contact with bidders 50 feet away.” He regularly made headlines selling paintings by van Gogh and Picasso for upwards of $40 million, and setting records for living artists like Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns for as much as $20 million. For his part, John was marrying into an oil fortune responsible for amassing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Texas with a world-class art collection.
This May, the present-day form of that collection, now valued at some $200 million, is going on the block at Sotheby’s, with showstopper paintings by the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, and Richard Diebenkorn.
Anne Marion, who died in February 2020, was formidable in her dedication to art, known for her generosity to and influence on institutions like the Museum of Modern Art Fort Worth and her founding of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But it is her personal art collection, formed over the course of more than three decades, that best tells the story of a vision and aesthetic deeply rooted in the American tradition and landscapes of the West. Sotheby’s is giving the 20 top lots from her collection their own evening sale, “American Visionary: The Collection of Mrs. John L. Marion.” (The house will also sell Marion’s jewelry and lower-value pieces in day sales.)
The collection may be one of the last of its kind to come on the market for a long time: the product of an eye not only for true quality also an understanding for bringing together art works with a sense of internal cohesion defined by taste. It also brings some much-needed spark to a market still beset by pandemic-related inertia.
“She was one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met,” recalled Hildesley, who ended up returning to Sotheby’s in 1993 and working with John Marion as an executive vice president shortly before the latter retired. “She was extraordinary in terms of what she achieved.” As for John Marion, now in his mid-80s and still living in Texas, Hildesley called him “the best American auctioneer we’ve ever had”—and one made all the better by the union he entered into with his wife. “They had 33 years of marriage in which they were really a complete unit. Once they got together, the fact that he was at the top of the art market and she was a major collector [meant] they did much greater things together than either of them would have done alone.”
The Marions met over an art collection—that of Anne’s mother, who had died in 1980 and whose estate had been taken in by Sotheby’s. “John ran into her as a client, so to speak,” said Hildesley. “And it was love at first sight, as far as I could tell.”
The elder Anne Valliant Burnett Tandy was herself an heiress to a fortune that had skipped a generation. Her grandfather, Captain Samuel “Burk” Burnett, left her his land and his oil interests. In her art collecting, she favored Impressionists and art from the early 20th century, but in 1969 she commissioned a home designed by one of the world’s foremost modernist architects: I.M. Pei, the creator of the glass pyramid at the Louvre, among other iconic structures. Anne Marion inherited that house and the rest of her mother’s fortune, which also came with the 142,000-acre 6666 Ranch, itself now on the market for $192 million.
By the time she met John Marion, Anne had already been hugely supportive of the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art. And later, in the ’90s, she furthered her support by purchasing a parcel of land for the museum at a cost of $25 million that would be the home for a new building for which she would be instrumental in choosing architect Tadao Ando.
Over the years, she gave numerous artworks to the museum, including an enormous Richard Serra sculpture that sits out front and an important self-portrait by Francis Bacon. “She had a great eye and she had no hesitation when she saw something that she liked,” said Marla Price, the museum’s director of 30 years. “She understood immediately when something was great or important, which made her really a joy to work with.”
“She understood immediately when something was great or important, which made her really a joy to work with.”
After her mother’s death in 1980, the I.M. Pei house would become the setting for Anne Marion’s own collection which she came to share with John. Marion “went carefully through her mother’s collection and really sold most of the things that she didn’t think fit with what she wanted to do, which was to collect almost entirely American postwar art,” said art dealer David Nash, who worked with John Marion at Sotheby’s and sold art to Anne Marion. She made the house her own. By the time Architectural Digest visited the home in 1991, reporting on a sprucing-up of interior design that Marion insisted had to be entirely subservient to the art, her dramatic 1948 Clyfford Still titled Painting No. 1 (PH-125), estimated to sell at Sotheby’s for $25–$35 million, was hanging in the Pei house’s entrance hall, along with a Richard Diebenkorn from his “Ocean Park” series and a dynamic Franz Kline called Mister from 1959 (estimated to sell at Sotheby’s for $15–20 million) surrounded by African sculptures from Gabon and Zaire.
Robert Motherwell’s 1962 painting Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 79 hung in a foyer off the entrance hall, in the midst of a marble-topped console from the 18th century, a Gabonese wood-and-metalwork reliquary figure, and a hollow wooden head from the Tabar Islands. A brightly colored Hans Hoffman from 1962—now on the block at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $4–6 million—dominated the dining room, and a Mark Rothko had pride of place in one of two living rooms. In 2012, Anne and John Marion would sell that Rothko, the nearly 10-foot-tall No. 1 (Royal Red & Blue), from 1954, at Sothebys for $75 million.
The artworks in Marion’s collection have storied provenances. For instance, the treasured Robert Motherwell that hung in her foyer: Joanne and Gifford Phillips, themselves prolific collectors and museum supporters (Gifford introduced his uncle Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., to art by the likes of Diebenkorn and Rothko), bought the painting directly from the artist around 1963. When Architectural Digest visited Motherwell’s home in 1984, however, the painting was on his bedroom wall—he’d missed it so much that he had gotten it back through an exchange. Of all the paintings in his “Elegy” series, this one, Motherwell told the magazine, was “one I want to keep for myself.” Five years later, in 1989, Anne Marion acquired it shortly before the artist’s death through the now-defunct Knoedler Gallery. Sotheby’s has the painting estimated at $4–6 million.
Marion bought Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park No. 40, (1971) at Sotheby’s New York in May 1990 for $1.76 million, setting a new auction record for the artist. The market was in a tailspin at the time, and Rita Reif, in a report for the New York Times, called the painting, for which competition was stiff as bids rose to nearly double the pre-sale estimate, one of the “surprises of the evening.” Marion bought it by phone, remaining unidentified. Sotheby’s now has the painting estimated at $20–30 million.
The other great Diebenkorn in Sotheby’s sale is Woman with Hat and Gloves, a painting completed in 1963 and acquired later that year by Mary Heath Keesling, a champion of Bay Area artists and a supporter of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Keesling put it up for sale at Sotheby’s New York in November 1989, when Anne Marion bought it for $880,000. Sotheby’s estimated it will sell this year for $4–6 million.
Marion acquired the bulk of the works in the forthcoming sale in the 1980s and ’90s. She bought her Warhol Elvis 2 Times (1963) from Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in 1999. Similar but more commonly known are Warhol’s “Ferus Type” Double Elvis works: 22 silkscreen versions he made in 1963 for his show at Los Angeles’s Ferus gallery, half of which are now in museum collections. A “Ferus Type” sold three years ago at Christie’s for $37 million, the same price it made at Sotheby’s in 2012. Marion’s Elvis 2 Times is what’s known as the “Studio Type,” a hand-painted version. Sotheby’s has it estimated at $20–$30 million.
Two years later, also from Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Marion bought the 1977 Lichtenstein painting Girl with Beach Ball II, in which the artist reprised, in his 1970s Surrealist mode, an earlier Girl with a Beach Ball from 1961 that is now held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The image in both mimics a newspaper ad for Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos—with a girl on vacation—and figures in work that critic Michael Kimmelman has credited as “pav[ing] the way for a generation of artists not yet born, or at least not yet out of elementary school.” Shortly after Lichtenstein completed the 1977 version, it was included in the sixth edition of Documenta, the prestigious quinquennial art festival in Kassel, Germany. It is now expected to sell in the range of $12–$18 million.
Marion continued collecting well into the new millennium. Two paintings in the Sotheby’s sale were acquired during the same New York auction week in May 2012, when she picked up a Wayne Thiebaud—a vertiginous view of a San Francisco street from 2001—at Christie’s for $4 million and, a day later, a hot-red six-and-a-half-foot-tall 1992 painting by Gerhard Richter, at Sotheby’s for $17 million. The Thiebaud is now estimated to sell for $3–4 million. The Richter—acquired by Marion as Richter’s prices were skyrocketing (later that year, Eric Clapton would sell a Richter at Sotheby’s London for $34.2 million, resetting the auction record for a living artist at the time)—is now estimated to go for $14–18 million.
Throughout her life, despite her many contributions to cultural institutions, Marion remained modest and deferential to the art she revered. She was very, very discreet about her philanthropy,” said David Nash. “She was personally very shy. So she did not like publicity of any kind.” Shortly after she died, Texas Architect magazine identified her as the kind of benefactor who “[o]n occasion … are recognized publicly, but many times, their actions are quiet, known only to a few, and therefore not acknowledged. Reward or recognition is not their motive, and humility generally prevails.” Marion, the magazine point outed, bought the site for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s new building before even telling the institution’s board. She wanted the institutions she supported to have the best of everything. Nash recalls having lunch with Marion in the nineties in Santa Fe, shortly after she’d founded the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “Anne announced at lunch that she had just bought a parking lot next door to where the museum was going to be located, so that the museum building could be larger,” he said.
Such is the spirit of Marion’s reputation that even the cataloguing process at Sotheby’s has stirred moving memories of one of the great collectors of the era. “Whenever we’re having conversations with people who were in Mrs. Marion’s orbit, it gets emotional quickly,” said Mike Macaulay, a veteran researcher at Sotheby’s. “She made a lasting and important impact.”