“Death means a lot of money, honey”
Before he killed himself in his Manhattan studio in February 1970, Mark Rothko
wrote a will that was firm in its wishes if not its wording: his estate should not, it requested, be atomised and disappear into the vaults of the very wealthy. To this end, Rothko engaged three friends as executors and set up a foundation. Yet following the artist’s death, and that of his wife Mary Alice a few months later, the executors did indeed break up Rothko’s estate, selling a large part of it to the Marlborough Gallery at extremely deflated prices, and giving Marlborough the right to sell other canvases on consignment for higher than normal commission.
The following year, Rothko’s 20-year-old daughter Kate sued on behalf of herself and her younger brother. A protracted court case revealed the cosy ties between executors and gallery. The case was won but the damage was already done. Many of Rothko’s paintings, including his daughter’s favourite, “Homage to Matisse”, had already been sold on and weren’t coming back.A similar fate befell the legacies of other famous artists. Pablo Picasso died intestate in 1973 having been possessed by the superstition that making a will would hasten his demise. He left 45,000 works and seven heirs — a settlement that took six years and $30m to negotiate. The story of Rothko’s “orphans” fascinated the public of the time: it was “a betrayal the art world can’t forget” according to the New York Times; a “spectacular scandal” in People magazine.
It was also, for some observers, the moment that alerted artists and dealers to the fact that legacy management
wasn’t an abstract concept: securing an artistic afterlife was a business concern and that business could go badly wrong. Sculptor Henry Moore was the first British artist to reckon with his legacy on an institutional scale. He set up the Henry Moore Foundation in 1977, creating a structure so rigid that he was obliged to become its employee and draw an annual salary for his work. According to his only child, Mary Moore, he found parts of the process a “real bore”: “In a way what you’re doing is turning yourself into an institution while you’re still alive,” she says.Moore’s diligence was prompted in part by financial prudence. By the end of his career he was the world’s most successful artist at auction, and creating a foundation with charitable status could reduce his sizeable income tax bill.
Forty years after the judge in the Rothko case decided that each of the canvases sold to Marlborough was worth at least $90,000, Christie’s sold Rothko’s “No. 10” for $82m.As Andy Warhol once put it: “death means a lot of money, honey”. In today’s art market, the significance of securing an artist’s estate seems all too obvious. But sky-high prices have increased tensions, too. Ugly and expensive infighting between inheritors and trustees has touched many estates since Picasso’s. Warhol’s was the first to fold, announcing in 2011 that, “We’d rather see our money go to artists than lawyers.”