Estates in Waiting: Which Collectors Are Being Courted by Auction Houses and Museums?

One of the most valued things in the art world is provenance—the history of an artwork’s ownership—and a sterling record is often a key indication of whether or not a work can sell for top dollar at auction, or even in a private transaction. Some of the biggest earnings for auction houses come from selling off the holdings of an estate, including most recently the 2018 Christie’s sale of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection, which brought in $832.6 million.

It’s no wonder then that competition for some of the world’s top collections is intense—museums trying to land donations vie against auction houses and galleries scrambling to make the most lucrative deals for estate beneficiaries. Look no further than Barney Ebsworth’s esteemed collection of American art, which, although promised to the Seattle Art Museum, ended up being sold at Christie’s in 2018 for a total of $323.1 million.

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[Auction houses are warring with each other to sell big estates. Read more.]

Among the most valuable private collections in existence is that of Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder. Some 4,000 items strong, it spans categories from Old Masters to modern to contemporary and includes the work of artists ranging from Klimt to Kandinsky to Kiefer. Ronald founded the Neue Galerie, a confection of a museum dedicated to early 20th-century German and Austrian art, and both Lauders have served as trustees: Jo Carole at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Ronald at the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The holdings of such select influential collectors with strong institutional ties, philanthropic influence, and highly discerning taste remain at the top of the most-wanted list in both the commercial and nonprofit realms.

Another envied collection is that of Donald Blinken. An influential New York financier and former ambassador to Hungary, Blinken began collecting New York School artists in the 1950s. Early acquisitions of key artists like Philip Guston and Mark Rothko (he was president of the Rothko Foundation from 1976 to 1989) attest to his impeccable judgment in building a collection representing what was then the vanguard of art. Abstract Expressionist works now being a coveted brand, the holdings of the 95-year-old Blinken have vast appeal to institutions and individuals the world over.

Estates to Watch:

Donald and Vera Blinken

Estate of Anne Marion (d. 2020)

Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder

Estate of Paul Allen (d. 2018)

Sheldon Solow

Sam and Helen Zell

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Estates in Waiting.”


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