10 Things We Learned From Bunny Mellon’s Monster Estate Sale
Don’t crumple the Rothko, don’t refinish the antiques, and act fast
Think of it as a master class in estate planning. Earlier this month, Sotheby’s sold all 43 pieces on offer from Bunny Mellon’s art collection—Rothko to Picasso to Diebenkorn—at its much-heralded “Property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon: Masterworks.” The estate sale brought in $158.7 million, about $40 million more than the high pre-sale estimate. Last week, jewelry and furniture brought in $59.3 million more.
Not all auctions go quite as well. So we talked to art lawyers and estate planners across the country to find out what Mrs. Mellon, heiress to a Listerine fortune and wife of banker Paul Mellon, did right when it came to planning for posterity. Here are some tips for making sure your estate fetches what it deserves, at the inevitable world-class auction of your own belongings.
1. Have flawless taste—and clear title.
Bunny Mellon was known for her discerning eye, and her art collection came to include pieces by everyone from 17th century Dutch master Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder to Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper, which clearly increased the value.
But Mellon was also careful to keep all her acquisitions on the up-and-up, which solidified that value.
“You want to make sure that the provenance [a piece’s history of ownership and exhibition] on the artworks you’re selling is clear and clean,” said Herbert Nass, a New York trusts and estates attorney and author of Wills of the Rich and Famous. “The last thing you want is for there to be some kind of dispute” after your passing over the ownership of the piece.