Who Actually Bought the Rothko? (Hint: The ‘Times’ Was Wrong!)

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Who was the bearded man at Sotheby’s? Last night, a hirsute David Rockefeller Jr. pressed up against the glass of the skybox overlooking Sotheby’s salesroom, his philanthropist father beside him, watching their family’s 1950 Mark Rothko masterpiece sell for $72.8 million. Today’s New York Times, however, reports that a bearded man in a skybox bought the Rothko. Sotheby’s press office says no, that the final bidder purchased it by phone through Roberta Louckx, the auctioneer's multilingual head of client services. And one Sotheby’s insider says of the Times, “We don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Indeed, internal speculation is that two of the four bidders, if not the winner, were Russian. (Rothko was actually born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903.) Sotheby's had given a hard sell on the painting to buyers who bid on behalf of an art-collecting suite of Russian vodka, metals, and oil oligarchs. Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer had even argued, perhaps implausibly, that the filmy abstract painting was about "the immigrant experience."

As for the Rockefeller clan, they began the evening in the office of Sotheby’s chairman Michael Sovern and moved to the skybox as the painting came up for the bid. The Rockefellers were selling the painting for charity, and the whole clan broke into happy applause when it became the most expensive postwar artwork ever sold at auction. Its filmy blocks of pink, orange, and white, something of an inverted conceptual sunrise, had been buzzed about in the art world for weeks. The work was painted in 1950, during the short period that "New York School" founder Rothko, who later committed suicide, was using brighter, happier colors. All told, Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art raised $254 million, and fifteen artists including Cecily Brown and Francis Bacon set new records.

Spectators in the audience included dealers Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch, and, in the fourth row, a grinning Al Taubman. Chairman of the auction house until he was jailed in 2002 as part of the Fed’s probe of an antitrust practices in the art world, he’s still one of the auctioneer’s biggest shareholders. And he was smiling. —Alexandra Peers