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Ms. Sonnabend’s art trove, which includes seminal works by artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, R

April 4, 2008
Inside Art

A Colossal Private Sale by the Heirs of a Dealer

In what experts described as the largest private sale of art ever, the heirs of the legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend have parted with some $600 million worth of paintings and sculptures in two transactions to cover their estate taxes.

Ever since Ms. Sonnabend died in October at 92, the auction giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been vying with some of the world’s most powerful art dealers — Larry Gagosian, William Acquavella, Robert Mnuchin, the team of Giraud Pissarro Ségalot — to get at least a piece of the collection to sell.

Ms. Sonnabend’s art trove, which includes seminal works by artists like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, is valued at more than $1 billion. Taxes on the estate amount to more than half the value of the assets, experts said.

After months of deliberations Ms. Sonnabend’s son and daughter settled this week on the two private sales. “We did sell two blocks of works,” said Antonio Homem, Ms. Sonnabend’s son, who along with her daughter, Nina Sundell, inherited the collection.

Citing confidentiality agreements, Mr. Homem declined to identify the buyers. But experts close to the transactions who insisted on anonymity, also because of those agreements, said that the dealers Franck Giraud, Lionel Pissarro and Philippe Ségalot, who have offices in New York and Paris, bought $400 million worth of art on behalf of several clients, including some of the collection’s finest works. A second group of artworks, all Andy Warhols, was sold to the Gagosian Gallery for $200 million, the experts said.

Neither Mr. Gagosian nor Giraud, Pissarro, Ségalot, also known as GPS Partners, would comment on the sales.

But experts said the cache sold to GPS Partners included Jeff Koons’s 1986 sculpture “Rabbit” (pictured above), which has been valued in excess of $80 million, as well as Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 cartoon painting “Eddie Diptych,” Mr. Twombly’s abstract “Blue Room” from 1957 and Warhol’s 1963 “Silver Disaster,” one of the artist’s paintings of an electric chair.

The experts said they could not identify all the buyers to whom GPS Partners would in turn sell the works. But they said they had been told that several very wealthy collectors were involved, among them François Pinault, the French luxury goods magnate and owner of Christie’s; Sammy Ofer, the Israeli shipping magnate; and Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire, whom Forbes listed last year as the world’s third-wealthiest man.

Mr. Gagosian is said by the experts to be representing several American and Russian collectors in the deal. Among the Warhols sold by Ms. Sonnabend’s heirs are “Four Marilyns,” from 1962; two paintings of Elizabeth Taylor; and three small paintings from the artist’s “Death and Disaster” series.

Known for a shrewd eye and sure taste, Ms. Sonnabend was among the world’s most powerful dealers in the 1960s and ’70s, as was her first husband, Leo Castelli.

“Both in her collecting and in business, Ileana followed her interest and her enthusiasms,” said Mr. Homem, whom Ms. Sonnabend adopted in the 1980s, when he was already an adult and working in her gallery. “The Sonnabend collection is a kind of self-portrait, a diary of her life.”

Her galleries, the Sonnabend Gallery in New York and Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris, exhibited a star-studded list of artists, including Warhol, Mr. Johns, Mr. Rauschenberg, Georg Baselitz and Claes Oldenburg. During the 1960s and ’70s she introduced American Pop artists to Europeans, and European artists like Christo, Mr. Baselitz and the British duo Gilbert and George to Americans.

In addition to selling art Ms. Sonnabend enjoyed holding on to her favorites, and over the years she amassed hundreds of works of art and outstanding examples of 20th-century furniture. Much of it travels on loan to museums around the world, but a good deal has also been in storage for decades.

Perhaps the most famous painting she owned — Mr. Rauschenberg’s 1959 “Canyon” — will never leave the collection, Mr. Homem said. In its center is a stuffed bald eagle that cannot be sold because of a federal prohibition on trafficking in endangered species.

Mr. Homem said he and Ms. Sundell hoped to hang on to as much of Ms. Sonnabend’s collection as they can. “Although we have lost many great things, our intention has always been to keep the character of the Sonnabend collection intact,” he said.

“Basically,” he added with satisfaction, “the idiosyncrasies are still there.”

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