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The highlights of the collection’s sale at a Sotheby’s auction Thursday were two works painted by Mark Rothko in the last year of his life; they reached the lower ends of their estimates. Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue), left, sold for US$10.5-million while Untitled (Red on Red) sold for US$8.2-million.

Darrell Rocha/Sotheby's

A leading collection of modern American paintings that used to hang at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was sold at a New York auction for a total of more than $45-million on Thursday.

The collection of Arnold and Blema Steinberg, Montreal philanthropists and art lovers, has been lost to Canada due to a series of family deaths. The mid-century abstract art, which Sotheby’s describes as the most important collection of American colour-field painting ever to come to auction, was on long-term loan to the Montreal institution when the Steinberg family was hit by three deaths.

In 2015, Arnold Steinberg, a former executive in his family’s grocery business and chancellor of McGill University, died unexpectedly at age 82; his wife Blema, a political scientist at McGill, died only 13 months later in 2017. Their son Adam died last year at age 51, leaving his two sisters who live in New York struggling to settle three estates. Adam had been working with the MMFA to donate at least some of the art, which had been on display at the museum since November, 2016.

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“The whole family went through a real tragedy within a few months,” MMFA director Nathalie Bondil wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “Not only has it been a true drama for [Adam’s] two sisters based in New York City, but they must face unexpected financial circumstances: We understood the complexity of the situation and feel sorry as it was not what we would have expected for the collection and for their home city museum.”

The highlights of the collection’s sale at a Sotheby’s auction Thursday were two works painted by Mark Rothko in the last year of his life; they reached the lower ends of their estimates. Untitled (Red and Burgundy Over Blue) sold for US$10.5-million while Untitled (Red on Red) sold for US$8.2-million. (These prices include the buyer’s premium – 13.9 per cent on hammer prices more than US$4-million, and 20 per cent for lower prices.)

The sale began with strong bidding on Helen Frankenthaler’s Newfoundland, which sold for US$2.7-million. Robert Motherwell’s Elegy Study No. XIII sold for US$2.9-million while Kenneth Noland’s Blue sold for US$3.5-million. Earlier in the week, a bronze bust by Alberto Giacometti sold for US$4.8-million. A 1906 Picasso drawing Buste de Femme Nue (Bust of a Woman), which had been included at MMFA exhibitions in 2007, 2014 and 2018, sold for US$1.6-million.

With that track record of exhibition, the MMFA might reasonably have expected that the Picasso would be donated permanently to the museum, along with at least some of the American works. It had included the Rothkos in several exhibitions over the years, and the Steinbergs had lent the collection to the museum’s new Pavilion of Peace when it opened in November, 2016, almost a year after Arnold Steinberg’s death.

The Steinbergs had previously donated Pacific Gift by the American artist Jim Dine in celebration of the museum’s 150th anniversary in 2010, and before his death last year their son Adam was working with the MMFA on a commemorative exhibition for 2019-20 that would have included another gift of art.

A family representative declined to discuss what specific financial circumstances lead the estate to sell rather than donate. Previously the representative, to whom The Globe and Mail granted anonymity due to security concerns associated with the art’s high values, had explained the family decided that selling the art in a high market and making donations to McGill University would increase the estate’s charitable impact.

Some of the proceeds of the sale are earmarked for the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning, which educates health-care professionals at McGill, as well as other university programs.

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Under Canadian law, significant art works that are more than 50 years old and have been in Canada more than 35 years must have special export permits to leave the country. Much of the Steinberg art slipped out just before it turned 50 – the Rothkos were created in 1970 while the works by Motherwell and Frankenthaler date to the mid-1970s.

The MMFA’s Bondil said the international art left the museum in two lots: The Rothkos departed in December, 2018, and the rest, including the Giacometti, the Noland and works by Motherwell and Agnes Martin, left in January of this year.

Meanwhile, in Canada, two 1953 paintings by Jean-Paul Riopelle from the same estate will go on sale in Toronto at Heffel Fine Art Auction House later this month. These will need export permits if they are bought by collectors outside this country. If those works are flagged for an export delay by the government, Canadian museums will be given time – and grant money – to buy the art. But, paradoxically, museums are less likely to be interested in the Riopelles than in the American art since the Quebec abstractionist is well represented in Canadian public collections. (Under the system of export delays, if no museum is interested in buying the art, permits are then issued.)

American modern masterpieces are far more expensive than their Canadian equivalents and no Canadian museum would have been expected to bid in New York: The MMFA has an annual acquisition budget of only $1-million and relies on donors to expand the collection, either giving art they already hold or making purchases and then donating. Canada grants generous tax credits for donations of art and allows them to escape taxes on any capital gain.

Editor’s note: (May 17, 2019) This story has been updated to clarify that only some of the proceeds from the Steinberg sale will go to McGill University programs.

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