Mark Rothko’s abstractions, recognizable for their rectangularly shaped floating forms and thin washes of color, have been said by critics and historians to invoke the metaphysical. The Russian-American painter relied on these formal elements to imbue his canvases with grand meaning. He famously remarked his works comprise the basic tenets of human feeling: “tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
The artist is remembered for his disdain for the art establishment as well. Though Rothko rejected associations with the art market’s elite during his lifetime, his paintings have long attracted some of the wealthiest patrons around the globe. In the late 1950s, Rothko produced a series of deep-red murals for the Seagram Building in Manhattan, commissioned by the Bronfman family who owned the historic hotel. The deal fell through when the artist decried the venue for its steep prices, but the works produced for the series went on to become some of the most well-known of his career. Several now reside on view at the Tate in London. The following decade, Texan mega-collectors John and Dominique de Menil assembled a collection of 14 monumental works by the Abstract Expressionist that would line the walls of the now-famed Rothko Chapel in Houston. This past September, that beloved space reopened after a $30 million restoration.
Now as then, Rothko’s works command some of the highest prices on the market. This November, the sale of the $600 million collection of another set of major collectors, the divorcing New York billionaire couple Harry and Linda Macklowe, looks to bring a new auction benchmark for the artist. A Rothko painting held by the Macklowes, No. 7 (1951), is expected to fetch $70 million. If it reaches that estimate, it will surpass the painter’s prior auction record, set in 2012, when Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) sold at Christie’s in New York for $86.8 million.
Below, a list of Rothko’s top auction prices.
Sold for: $66.2 million
In May 2014, Rothko’s 1962 untitled canvas soared past its $40 million estimate during a Christie’s New York evening sale, realizing $66.2 million. The eight-and-a-half-foot-tall painting, featuring fields of violet, orange, and burgundy, went to a client on the phone with Christie’s Asia specialist Xin Li. Just days later, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen sold another Rothko from 1955 with a blue and orange scheme at Phillips for $56.2 million.
White center (Yellow, pink and lavender on rose), 1950
Sold for: $72.8 million
In May 2007, Sotheby’s sold White center (Yellow, pink and lavender on rose) for $72.8 million. It had come to auction from the collection of David Rockefeller, who held onto the painting for nearly five decades. He had purchased it from New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery in 1960 for less than $10,000, which at the time was no small sum for a work for a living artist. (The year afterward, Rothko’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art cemented the artist’s status as one of the day’s foremost Abstract Expressionists.) The six-and-a-half-foot-tall work was bought by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and his wife Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. Unlike Rothko’s deeper-hued works from his later period, White center has a more vibrant color scheme, with the canvas divided into horizontal bands that appear more often in his earlier works.
No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), 1954
Sold for: $75 million
In November 2012, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue) from 1954 sold for $75.1 million at a Sotheby’s evening sale in New York. The price far exceeded the pre-sale estimate of $35 million. Before coming to sale, it passed through the hands of esteemed dealer Richard Feigen and New York collector Ben Heller. The canvas is one of eight the artist selected for his solo show in 1954 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
No. 10, 1958
Sold for: $81.9 million
In May 2015, Rothko’s No. 10 (1950) sold for $81.9 million during Christie’s postwar and contemporary art evening sale in New York. The 1958 painting, which Rothko completed as part of the Seagram building commission, features dark orange forms hovering over a black background, appearing to give it a haloed effect. During the late 1950s, Rothko began to move away from vibrant hues of his earlier paintings and towards a more austere palette. “He seemed to be saying in these new foreboding works, that he was never painting luxe, calme and volupté, if we had only know it,” critic Dore Ashton once wrote. At Christie’s, the painting surpassed its $45 million estimate, hammering for a price of $73 million after several bidders competed for it. The anonymous American seller purchased it in 1986 from Pace Gallery.
Orange, red, yellow, 1961
Sold for: $86.9 million
In May 2012, Orange, red, yellow (1961) sold for $86.9 million when it went under the hammer at Christie’s in New York. During the sale, the painting soared past its $45 million high estimate. The result surpassed the previous record price for a postwar work on the the open market, narrowly outpacing Sotheby’s 2008 sale of a Francis Bacon triptych for $86.3 million. Alongside works from Rothko’s peers, among them Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Clyfford Still, the painting was sold from the collection of Philadelphia retailer David Pincus, which brought in a collected $174.9 million. Pincus had held onto the work for more than four decades; he took out a loan in 1967 to purchase it from Marlborough Gallery.