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Franz Kline joins art stratosphere with record $40.4-million sale

November 16, 2012|By Mike Boehm
  • Franz Kline's untitled black and white canvas from 1957 shattered the artist's record sales price in a Christie's auction Wednesday. The $40.4-million top bid more than quadrupled the previous record, set just Tuesday.
Franz Kline's untitled black and white canvas from 1957 shattered… (Christie's )

If L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art were in the business of selling art instead of showcasing it for today’s public and safekeeping it for tomorrow’s, it would have reaped a windfall this week, because an important sector of its collection has just appreciated considerably.

An unnamed buyer bid $40.4 million Wednesday at Christie’s in New York for a huge 1957 untitled painting by the American abstract expressionist Franz Kline -- more than six times higher than had previously been paid at a public auction for a Kline painting until this week. MOCA's collection includes 14 paintings by Kline, according to the museum's online archive.

The same auction brought a new record high for a publicly sold work by Jeff Koons. His colorful giant sculpture, "Tulips," fetched $33.7 million, topping his previous record of $25.8 million.

QUIZ | Art at the auction house: Can you guess the price?

(Students of financial history might wonder whether Koons, who completed his tulip series in 2004, according to Christie's, wasn't just celebrating floral beauty, but also making a wry comment on the very phenomenon he's been riding: In the 1630s a "tulip mania" took hold in the Netherlands, and investors bid up the price for tulip bulbs so high that when the bubble burst it ruined the Dutch economy.)

MOCA has been a leading repository for the work of Kline, who died in 1962, for nearly 30 years. It acquired 12 of his paintings in the 1984 purchase that put the then-fledgling museum on the art world’s map. MOCA paid $11 million for 80 works by nine artists -- Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist also among them. The seller, Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, was a MOCA trustee who wasn’t motivated solely by money, but wanted to do right by the museum and the Los Angeles art-viewing public while keeping his collection intact.

Bloomberg News reported that the Kline painting's seller on Wednesday was Robert Mnuchin, who according to the ownership history on Christie’s website was the first owner other than the artist himself. Next in the listed ownership chain was David Geffen, and then back to Mnuchin -- or, more precisely, C&M Arts, a gallery Mnuchin founded in 1993 after he’d retired from a key partner position at the Goldman Sachs investment firm.

The record price for Kline’s work at auction had stood at $6.4 million since 2005, then rose nearly 50% on Tuesday, when a Kline painting sold for $9.4 million in a Sotheby’s auction. The painting that Christie's auctioned for $40.4 million is much larger, about 6½ feet high by 9 feet wide. Christie’s had estimated it would fetch $20 million to $30 million.

Mnuchin is a partner with Dominique Levy in L&M Arts, a gallery in Venice (L.A.’s not Italy’s). Until September they also had jointly run an L&M Arts mother ship in Manhattan, but now Mnuchin is solely in charge there, with Levy planning to launch her own Manhattan gallery next year.

Mnuchin’s son, Steven, heads Pasadena-based OneWest Bank and is a MOCA trustee. On Thursday the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced that Steven’s wife, Heather Mnuchin, had joined its board. She is a former marketing and public relations executive for the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain and Launch Media, and also serves on the board of the Los Angeles Zoo.

Another family connection between the two museums involves sisters-in-law Maria Bell, the co-chair of MOCA’s board, and Colleen Bell, a LACMA trustee.

Wallis Annenberg serves on both boards and is a leading funder for both museums. The Annenberg Foundation has funneled more than $35 million to LACMA since she joined its board in 2002, and since 2007 it has given MOCA about $3.5 million. Annenberg became a MOCA trustee last year.


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