(Bloomberg) -- Auction sales of Robert Motherwell’s artworks totaled $16.1 million last year. Next month, a single painting by the postwar American artist could fetch that much.
“At Five in the Afternoon,” Motherwell’s monumental canvas, is estimated at $13 million to $16 million by Phillips auction house and will be the cover lot of the company’s evening sale of 20th century art on May 17 in New York.
The 1971 canvas is part of the artist’s “Elegy" series of about 170 paintings that were related to the Spanish Civil War. Most depict basic geometric shapes -- ovals and vertical rectangles -- in black on white.
Now they’re making a foray into pop culture. In the current season of “Billions,” the Showtime series featuring fictional hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, a large Elegy painting adorns Axelrod’s Manhattan penthouse. The character was partly based on hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, a major collector of modern and contemporary art.
“They became his most famous paintings,” Robert Manley, worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips, said of Motherwell’s works. “He did them throughout his career, but most of them are in museums."
The seller of the real-life Motherwell is Holly Hunt, a Chicago-based interior designer and entrepreneur, who said she bought it for less than $500,000 in 1981. For years, the 10-foot-wide painting was prominently displayed in her apartment overlooking Lake Michigan.
“It was my favorite piece in the collection,” said Hunt, who sold her furnishings company to Knoll Inc. for $95 million in 2014. “I am trying not to regret it.”
Hunt is building a house in Aspen, Colorado, and her adult children have no interest in collecting art, she said. “I am lightening my life.”
Motherwell (1915-1991) was a member of the New York School that also included Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. For more than a decade he was married to artist Helen Frankenthaler.
The Spanish Elegies reflected Motherwell’s “private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot,” he said in a 1963 interview. “The pictures are also general metaphors of the contrast between life and death and their interrelation.”
A smaller gouache version of “At Five in the Afternoon” was the first Elegy painting Motherwell ever made, in the winter of 1948-49, according to Jack Flam, president of the artist’s Dedalus Foundation. The title was inspired by a line from Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem about a bullfighter who was gored to death. When Motherwell and Frankenthaler divorced in 1971, she got the work in the settlement.
So he just made a much bigger one, Manley said. “They are impossible to get.”
Auction sales of Motherwell’s works more than doubled last year from $6.8 million in 2016, according to Artprice.com. In November, a 14-inch-tall Elegy fetched $1.6 million at Christie’s.
Still, the artist remains undervalued compared with many of his peers. “Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122" sold for $3.7 million in 2012, the auction record for the artist. Six months earlier, a Rothko set an auction record of $86.9 million.
Phillips, a smaller rival of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, offered Hunt an aggressive guarantee to get the work and already has lined up a client to place a minimum bid, ensuring the work sells.
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