Auction Houses Miss Out on $450 Million Collection of Late Philanthropist Don Marron

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How will this impact the market’s bottom line in 2020?

Three New York galleries that the Wall Street Journal referred to as “longtime rivals” will come together to sell the collection of the late philanthropist Donald Marron. Together, Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella will privately sell over 300 works estimated to be worth a combined US $450 million. This includes pieces by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ed Ruscha, and others. How exactly the trio managed to pull it off, particularly with competition from Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips, may never be public knowledge. “The joy of private sales,” quipped Pace president Marc Glimcher.

Don Marron and Catie Marron at the Whitney Museum of American Art in April 2015. Photo by J Grassi and Patrick McMullan. 

This agreement surprised many in the industry. News outlets reported aggressive negotiations from the three major auction houses. The previously-mentioned Wall Street Journal report confirms that the houses each guaranteed Catie Marron, the widow of Donald Marron, that the pieces would sell for at least US $300 million. Artnet cited Sotheby’s new owner, Patrick Dahi, and a need to make a “big splash” in his first year as a reason the auction house may be assertive. Meanwhile, Artvest Partners co-founder Michael Plummer saw potential in a Christie’s partnership. “We know [Christie’s owner François] Pinault and his family have an appetite for risk on big deals,” he said in the same report.

And the auction houses have good reasons to be aggressive. Last year, 35% fewer lots crossed the auction block with an estimate above $10 million than the year prior, according to Artnet Analytics. Plus, many are concerned that Brexit, coronavirus, and the upcoming US election will continue to impact the market.

To make matters worse for auction houses, the three New York galleries that won the rights to the collection are framing this as a critique of the auction model. Glimcher said a big reason why the three unlikely allies partnered up was to “make a point” about how galleries can hold their own against auction houses. “All this auction talk of numbers and people bidding wasn’t exciting to [the widow Catie Marron],” Glimcher told the Wall Street Journal. “Private sales are private, and sometimes that’s an advantage.”

Pablo Picasso, Femme au beret et la collerette (Woman with Beret and Collar) (1937). Photo from the Donald B. Marron Family Collection, Acquavella Galleries, Gagosian, and Pace Gallery.

An earlier report from Artnet pointed to the possible acquisition of Donald Marron’s collection by a major auction house as a reason to expect a turnaround “from a fairly mediocre 2019.” Now, those hopes lie in the collection of real estate moguls Harry and Linda Macklowe, whose divorce proceedings led to a court-ordered sale of their collection, worth an estimated $700 million. Artnet expects those pieces to go to auction as early as spring. 

Meanwhile, Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella prepare for the sale of Don Marron’s 300+ piece collection. The trio will host an event on April 24th, celebrating Marron’s accomplishment. Although, it is unclear which paintings or drawings will headline the event. And the galleries also are not ruling out the possibility of selling some pieces before that date. They cannot afford to sell the collection slowly. Among the few details we know about the partnership is that Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella agreed to buy any piece from Catie Marron that they cannot sell. “It was a lot of money, so we have to deliver—we can’t send any works back to her,” Bill Acquavella of Acquavella Galleries told the Wall Street Journal. 

But while it is a chaotic time for the galleries, it is also an important moment to honor the memory of Don Marron. Marron founded the Wall Street firm D.B. Marron & Co. in 1959. His early collecting passion lay in Hudson River paintings. But he grew to appreciate more modern pieces as time went by. He went on to help PaineWebber over 20 years with their collection as the company’s chairman. And he served as the president of the Museum of Modern Art, where he also donated pieces from his collection. He died of a heart attack last December, aged 85.

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