SFMOMA will sell a large Mark Rothko painting, Untitled (1960), at Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art in New York on May 16th, when it is expected to bring $35 million to $50 million. The funds will go to support future acquisitions by SFMOMA. The current auction record for a Rothko is held by Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), which sold at Christie’s in 2012 for $86.9 million, eclipsing its pre-sale estimate of $35 million to $45 million.
SFMOMA’s Rothko has top-notch provenance: the museum acquired it through a trade with Rothko in 1962, when it request an exchange for a painting by the artist that Peggy Guggenheim had donated, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944, now in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection). Rothko obliged, giving SFMOMA the more recent color field composition. Perhaps anticipating potential opposition to this high-profile deaccessioning, the Sotheby’s press release announcing the consignment specifies that SFMOMA did a thorough collection review, worked within guidelines set out by the Association of Art Museum Directors, and will only use proceeds from the auction for its acquisition fund.
In a statement, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture Gary Garrels framed the decision as part of an effort to diversify the collection:
SFMOMA is very fortunate to have rich holdings of Mark Rothko, including his undisputed masterpiece No. 14, 1960, which was acquired in the late 1990s as the result of another strategic deaccession. The proceeds from the upcoming sale will allow us to make great strides in diversifying the collection. Janet Bishop, Thomas Weisel Family Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and I are creating a focused plan and list of priority acquisitions.