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Mo' Art, Mo' Legacy: The Rise of Single-Owner Sales and the Ostin Collection

Mo' Art, Mo' Legacy: The Rise of Single-Owner Sales and the Ostin Collection
April 12, 2023
Keenan Flack

When Mo Ostin, the former Warner Bros. Records executive, passed away at the age of 95, he left behind a legacy that extended beyond the music industry. Ostin, who worked with icons like Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Prince, and Green Day, was also an avid art collector. Over the course of 50 years, he accumulated a remarkable collection of masterpieces that reflect his eclectic taste.

As Sotheby's prepares to auction off around 30 works from Ostin's collection in May, the art world eagerly awaits the sale, which is estimated to sell around $120 million worth of works. This remarkable sale is a testament not only to Ostin's discerning eye (he only collected as much as he could fit in his house) but also to this ongoing trend of posthumous sales by super-collectors.

L'Empire des lumières

Among the highlights of the collection is "L'Empire des lumières" by Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Created in 1951, the painting depicts an enigmatic scene in which a nighttime landscape is illuminated by a daylight sky. Concealed from public view for over four decades following Ostin's procurement in 1979, the work's emergence at auction is something of a cultural milestone, exemplifying how rarity propels exceptional art well into the eight-figure price range. Sotheby's estimates that the painting will sell for between $35 million and $45 million, potentially setting a new auction record for Magritte.

L'Empire des lumières

Though, to pass the artist’s record the sale would have to break $78.4 million which was realized for a similarly titled work (pictured above) which sold at Sotheby’s London in 2022.

Le Domaine d'Arnheim

Another notable Magritte piece is "Le Domaine d’Arnheim," painted in 1949. The work was a gift to Ostin from his close friend and fellow music-industry-titan-turned-art-collector, David Geffen. Ostin insisted on paying Geffen a fair market price for the painting, although that sum is unknown. Now, it is expected to bring in around $20 million at auction.


Cy Twombly's "Untitled" (1962) stands as another highlight among the sale’s offerings. Exemplifying Twombly's "Baroque period," the work masterfully melds classical inspiration with modern innovation. A testament to his versatile career, the piece is anticipated to fetch an impressive $18 million at auction.


Pablo Picasso's "Paysage" (1965) offers a rare glimpse into the artist's landscape paintings. The work depicts Mougins, France, where Picasso spent the final 12 years of his life. The work's distinguished provenance is also noteworthy, having once belonged to Maya, Picasso's late daughter, whose close connection to the artist imbues the piece with invaluable authenticity. It is estimated to fetch between $7 million and $10 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Moon View" (1984), which has not been seen in public for more than two decades; a defining feature of these posthumous single-owner sales. The painting, characterized by Basquiat's distinctive graffiti-style marks and symbols, is estimated to fetch between $7 million and $10 million.

As art collectors and enthusiasts anticipate the auction, the event also outlines the significance of super-collectors selling the works from a lifetime of collecting in one fell swoop. In recent years, the art market has seen a surge in such sales, with collections from the estates of notable collectors like S.I. Newhouse, Paul Allen, and Alan Press attracting significant attention and up to billions of dollars in total sales.

These big name sales offer a unique opportunity for collectors to acquire works that have been squirreled away for decades. Works are valued individually based on a number of factors, but among the most powerful is scarcity; if we haven’t seen works like this come to auction for 30 years, then there is a good chance you won’t see them again for another 30, unless of course, you can buy it.

Ostin's collection reflects his wide-ranging interests and appreciation for different artistic movements. From surrealism to abstract expressionism, pop art to contemporary, the collection encompasses a vast array of styles and periods. Ostin was an open-minded and curious collector, traits that mirror his approach to the music industry, where he was known for embracing a wide range of musical genres and supporting fresh and innovative artists.

Mo Ostin (right) and Prince

One of the most compelling aspects of Ostin's collection is the personal relationships and stories that are intertwined with the artworks. Evidenced by the acquisition of "Le Domaine d’Arnheim”, showing the close bond between Ostin and Geffen, and the mutual respect they had for each other's artistic sensibilities. Such personal narratives add a layer of depth and meaning to the collection, elevating it beyond a mere portfolio of valuable objects.

The auctioning of Ostin's collection after his passing beckons consideration on the direction of art collecting and the influence wielded by super-collectors. As a changing of the guard occurs between the powerful collectors of yesterday and the excitable collectors of today, such impressive single-owner sales represent transformative events, facilitating the reallocation of cultural assets and empowering emerging collectors to play a role in charting the course of art history.

For institutions and museums, these sales present both challenges and opportunities. While some works may find their way into public collections, enhancing accessibility and scholarship, others may be acquired by private collectors, potentially limiting their visibility. As such, significant single-owner sales prompt a broader reflection on issues of ownership, access, and cultural legacy.

The forthcoming auction of Mo Ostin's collection serves as a culmination of a life engaged in the exploration of artistic realms. Within the spheres of music and visual art, Ostin's legacy encompasses a receptiveness to novel concepts, a recognition of creative value, and a sustained dedication to championing artistic endeavors.

Single-owner sales seem to be gaining steam at major auction houses, bringing carefully curated collections to the forefront of the art market. While the format has become more regular, the individual works being sold remain unique, each possessing its own artistic and cultural significance.

Each single-owner sale provides a rare, exhilarating opportunity to behold unique artworks—often privately held for decades—as they emerge briefly for auction. Allowing art enthusiasts to celebrate and savor the extraordinary works before vanishing into private collections for years to come.

Photo Credit: Sotheby's and Warner Bros Records Archive

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