JFK Canvas Bought After His Death Poised to Return 300,000%

(Bloomberg) -- Recent whispers about the potential auction of a major painting by Robert Rauschenberg have primed the market for one of the most important postwar American artists.

The mystery is over.

JFK Canvas Bought After His Death Poised to Return 300,000%

On Friday, Christie’s plans to announce it will offer the 1964 work, “Buffalo II,” at a May 15 auction in New York, with an estimate of $50 million. That’s almost triple the late artist’s auction record and 300,000 percent more than what the original buyers paid for the collage-like canvas, which depicts President John F. Kennedy and was completed shortly after his assassination.

“Everyone has been waiting for this painting,’’ said Sara Friedlander, Christie’s international director and head of its postwar and contemporary art department in New York. “It’s the very best of the silkscreen paintings that’s left in private hands.’’

It’s part of a collection of Robert and Beatrice “Buddy” Mayer, an heiress to the Sara Lee fortune who died in Chicago in September. Christie’s will offer more than $125 million of Mayer’s works, including Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 “Kiss III," estimated at $30 million, among a group of Pop art. There are also Impressionist and modern art, Chinese ceramics and Latin American paintings.

JFK Canvas Bought After His Death Poised to Return 300,000%

The Mayers bought “Buffalo II” from legendary art dealer Leo Castelli, who represented Rauschenberg at the time, for $16,900. The upcoming sale could reset the market for the artist, whose auction prices have lagged behind contemporaries such as Jasper Johns. The auction record for Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, is $18.6 million. Johns’s “Flag" sold for as much as $36 million at auction in 2014.

Mayer, an art patron and activist, was a founding member of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In 1939, the Montreal native moved with her family to Baltimore, where her father, Nathan Cummings, bought a small, faltering grocery company, according to her obituary in the Chicago Tribune. It grew into the Consolidated Foods, whose best known brand was Sara Lee.

Buddy and Robert Mayer, who died in 1974, initially focused on European art but were priced out by the early 1960s, shifting their focus to contemporary art, according to Christie’s.

They “really believed that art reflected the times,” Friedlander said. “It was a very exciting, politically charged time. And that’s the art they wanted to buy.”

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