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Mutiny on the Bounty: Marron Estate’s Rich Art Trove to Be Dispersed by Dealers, Not Auction Houses

This could mark the beginning of a sea change in the balance of power between commercial art galleries and auction houses.

The late Donald Marron was a class act, so it struck me as fitting (not to mention smart) that his estate’s holdings of modern and contemporary art are not going to be hocked on the block at Sotheby’s or Christie’s—the usual fate of large collections that are put on the market.

Relationships with knowledgeable dealers (not to mention curators) played a crucial role in honing Marron’s taste and augmenting his collection. His contemporary art holdings were largely purchased in the primary market of dealers’ galleries, not in the secondary market of the salesroom. He was early in spotting and collecting new talent.

Donald Marron (top right) at Frieze Art Fair, New York, May 2017
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Now three dealers with whom he worked closely will play a key role in “finding great placement [emphasis added] for the masterworks that Don loved so much,” in the words of Marc Glimcher, whose Pace Gallery has joined in a consortium with Acquavella Galleries and Gagosian to market the paintings, usurping the usual role of the big auction houses (which made their own plays for the prize collection).

“Finding great placement” is not something with which highest-bidder auction houses customarily concern themselves. I’m guessing that the three galleries will coddle the consignments in elegant installations, treating them as museum pieces, not merchandise. These displays are to be accompanied by “a scholarly volume [published by Phaidon Press] to illuminate Marron’s collection and celebrate his legacy. The publication will include illustrations of the works and extensive archival material [emphasis added], as well as contributions from scholars, artists, and friends”—a cut above your typical auction catalogue.

In their joint press release, the three dealers fondly reminisce about their warm relationships with their esteemed friend and client. In the case of Pace’s Arne Glimcher, that included “a close family friendship, looking at art together, not only in our gallery but in museums and other galleries as well.”

Donald Marron, gazing intently at an Anselm Kiefer at the May 2017 Frieze Art Fair in New York
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

While not revealing the number of works to be offered or their estimated value, the galleries’ press release notes that “Marron acquired over 300 modern and contemporary masterworks.”

Plans call for concurrent Marron exhibitions to open at the three New York galleries this May, around the time when top collectors and dealers will be gathering for the auction houses’ major spring sales. The Marron displays will include not only works available for sale, but also examples “from the family collection, as well as loans from institutions.” If those “institutions” are museums, they would be conferring their prestigious imprimatur on commercial gallery shows—a dubious practice that I’ve previously frowned upon (here and here).

One of the lending institutions could be the Museum of Modern Art, where Marron served as trustee since 1975, becoming board president from 1985 to 1991, and then president emeritus. I have asked MoMA (but have not heard back yet) about whether it intends to mount an exhibition on its own premises dedicated to Marron’s gifts, as it did for the late David Rockefeller:

MoMA’s wall text for its posthumous focus show devoted to David Rockefeller’s gifts
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

MoMA director Glenn Lowry appears to have been accorded the role (unusual for a museum professional) of advising the Marron estate’s executors: The NY TimesRobin Pogrebin reported yesterday that Marron’s will (a copy of which she obtained) includes a request that the executors consult Lowry “concerning the disposition of ‘my paintings, drawings, prints and similar works of art.'”

Glenn Lowry at a MoMA press conference
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

I can’t think of any other instances in which a museum official has played a significant (and, to my mind, questionable) role in guiding sales from a private collector’s estate. (Earlier today, I sent queries to Lowry and to MoMA’s press office regarding the Marron estate. If I know more, you’ll know more.)

It’s clear that the three allied galleries hope that their strategy for competing with the big auction houses may start a new trend. Their press release trumpets their collaboration as “the first of its kind, [which] signals a new way [emphasis added] for families to handle the sales of their collections.”

That “new way” comes at a time when “skittish sellers are shunning the auction spotlight amid a shaky art market” (in the words of Kelly Crow‘s recent Wall Street Journal article on the Marron dispersal). My guess is that prospective buyers have become increasingly alienated by such non-transparent auction contrivances as anonymous irrevocable bidders and third-party guarantors, to whom the house pays fees, even when those guarantors are the winning bidders. That makes the net price paid by guarantors less than what would be paid by anyone else at the same hammer price—an un-level playing field (as I’ve previously discussed).

As I wrote in my Gloom at the Top post:

“The ‘auction fever’ of yesteryear has given way to single-bid transfers of artworks (after a few feigned “chandelier” bids, lobbed by the auctioneers)….Auction-house practices have become too arcane, convoluted and counterproductive for the market’s (and the auction houses’) good. Single-bid knockdowns on star lots that should be hotly contested are signs of a faltering business model.

The mega-dealer triumvirate is hoping to forge a robust new business model. If it works, we may see more such arrangements for marketing coveted collections.

Speaking of which: What’s going on with the Macklowe Collection?

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