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The Mo Ostin Collection at Sotheby’s New York

May 23, 2023

A surrealist painting of a house amid trees shrouded in darkness, with a bright blue midday sky above.

L'Empire des lumières by René Magritte

Christie’s and Sotheby’s sometimes mirror each other. That fact was more apparent during Sotheby’s sales on Tuesday, May 16, which came shortly after a pair of very successful Christie’s sales the previous Thursday. On Tuesday, Sotheby’s started with the collection of music executive Mo Ostin. Ostin spent over thirty years at Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, and was responsible for signing Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Neil Young, the Talking Heads, Van Halen, Madonna, and R.E.M. There were 15 lots in total, with some of the most highly anticipated being works by the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Specifically, Magritte’s L’Empire des lumières was the most highly valued lot of the sale, with Sotheby’s specialists estimating it to sell for between $35M and $55M. The painting is part of a series, all showing houses shrouded in the darkness of night but with a bright blue midday sky above them. Ostin acquired the work in 1979 from fellow music executive David Geffen. The Magritte sold after nearly 10 minutes of bidding, with a hammer coming down at $36.5M (or $42.3M w/p), making it the second most valuable work by Magritte ever sold at auction. The first, interestingly enough, was another painting from the L’Empire des lumières series that sold at Sotheby’s London in March 2022 for £51.5M.

A painting of a window looking out onto some snow-capped mountains. One of the mountain peaks has been carved into the shape of an eagles head. The glass from the window is shattered, withs the shards scattered all over the windowsill and the floor. The shards are not transparent, but show a broken image of the mountainous background as if it wasn't a piece of glass but a screen.

Le Domaine d'Arnheim by René Magritte

The other Magritte from the Mo Ostin collection came in second place, as the Sotheby’s house specialists expected. This one, entitled Le Domaine d’Arnheim, shows a window looking out onto snow-covered mountains. The window's glass is shattered and scattered across the windowsill and the floor. Each shard of glass is not transparent but shows an imprint of what was once behind it, almost as if someone had shattered a screen. Magritte created several works called Le Domaine d’Arnheim, all based on Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Domain of Arnheim”, about a man who became so wealthy he took up the hobby of “landscape-gardening”, hence the mountain peak in the background sculpted into the shape of an eagle’s head. It is by far my favorite painting in the entire sale and is incredibly thought-provoking, addressing the dialogue between the man-made and the natural. This is another work Ostin bought from David Geffen in 1990. Like L’Empire des lumières, Le Domaine d’Arnheim barely squeezed by its minimum estimate, selling for $16.2M (or $18.9M w/p) against a $15M to $25M estimate range. This makes it Magritte’s fifth most valuable work sold at auction, right behind A la rencontre du plaisir, a painting that sold for $16.5M as part of an Art of the Surreal sale at Christie’s London in February 2020.

An abstract work consisting of orange and white paint sparing spatter across a care canvas, with crayon and pencil scribbles throughout.

Untitled by Cy Twombly

And finally, in third was a large, untitled work by the American painter Cy Twombly. The canvas, measuring about 49 ½ by 56 ¾ inches, seems almost spattered with oil paint and littered with crayon and pencil scribbles. The media are applied in a manner consistent with Twombly’s other work, nearly always straddling the line between fine art and graffiti. This untitled work has never been to auction before, having previously bounced between several private collections and galleries, including Thomas Ammann Fine Art in Zurich. After only three minutes of bidding, Oliver Barker brought the hammer down at $10M (or $11.8M w/p), falling short of the $14M low estimate assigned by the house specialists.

The sale overall did rather well. Of the fifteen lots total, five sold within their estimates, giving Sotheby’s a 33% accuracy rate. Six lots (40%) sold under, three lots (20%) sold over, and only a single lot (7%) went unsold. Since a good chunk of the sale sold for below their pre-sale estimates, the auction brought in $104.85M, only slightly above the $103.3M total minimum estimate. The fact that some lots were guaranteed, like the Mitchell, the Gorky, and one of the Picassos, likely saved the sale. Additionally, had the reserves of some lots been slightly higher, Sotheby’s may have had a small disaster on its hands.