What Will Become of a Tycoon’s Art Gems?

In an apartment high above Manhattan, paintings by van Gogh, Matisse and Modigliani overlooked the East River and tribal artworks and Egyptian antiquities mingled with Giacometti bronzes and furniture. Several blocks west, a monumental Miró bronze stood guard by a skyscraper known for its sloping glass facade and masterpieces inside.

But now the future of one of the finest 20th-century art collections hangs in the balance following the death last month of Sheldon Solow, 92, the self-made real estate tycoon who amassed it over five decades. Many works decorated the Solows’ flat at United Nations Plaza. A rotating cast of trophies was displayed in a street-facing gallery at the Solow Building on West 57th Street, the home of the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation and the heart of his real estate empire.

The art world is holding its breath. In the past decade, Mr. Solow emerged as a major seller of masterpieces at auction, and new consignments from his eclectic collection could infuse as much as $500 million into today’s market — which has been starved for supply at the high end since the pandemic hit — according to Elizabeth von Habsburg, managing director of Winston Art Group, an appraisal and advisory firm. “We are keenly awaiting the news on the disposition of this estate,” she said. “The potential is really exciting.”

Mr. Solow intended to use the proceeds from the Botticelli sale to create “a little jewel in the heart of Manhattan,’’ said Ms. Fonssagrives Solow, 79. But in November, she told a reporter “we may hold that,” adding, “We may make it the centerpiece of the museum. It is too early to tell.”

When a seller pulls a work after agreeing to consign it, auction houses charge a withdrawal fee. The amount is negotiable but typically ranges between 10 percent and 25 percent of the estimate depending on the auction house, according to Thomas C. Danziger, an attorney specializing in art transactions.

“The principle is that the auction house wants to make it painful enough so that a consignor thinks twice,” said Mr. Danziger, who is not involved in the Botticelli consignment. “They don’t want you to pull the work if you get a better offer.”

The son of a Brooklyn bricklayer, Mr. Solow built a real estate empire from scratch and was known as tough and litigious. Despite being a major collector of modern art, he kept a low profile in the art world and was acutely private, according to people who knew him, often buying and selling art anonymously.

“He was definitely of a generation who started when the art world was much smaller,’’ said David Norman, chairman of the Americas at Phillips auction house and formerly Sotheby’s top expert in Impressionist and modern art. “They made their own choices and spoke with the great dealers of their era, but relied on themselves.”

The 13 specific artworks listed among the assets of the Solow Foundation, including the Botticelli, had a combined market value of $340.6 million in 2018, according to its last available tax return. The value of Solow’s personal collection is harder to gauge, partly because he’s sold many key pieces in the past decade, generating more than $400 million at auction.

That work could be worth $75 million now, according to Mr. Acquavella. The second, more finished version of the young sailor, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To maximize his returns as a seller, he never took guarantees, the minimum prices offered by the auction houses to sellers in exchange for sharing the upside, auction executives said. Instead, Mr. Solow would negotiate “enhanced hammer” deals, taking a percentage of the auction commission.

“And the sales results proved him right every time,” said the art dealer David Nash.

In 2016, Mr. Solow Picasso’s “Femme Assise” to Sotheby’s in London. The sale took place on the eve of the Brexit vote while the pound plunged wildly. Still the work ended up making $63.5 million. “The Pointing Man,” which Mr. Solow bought in 1970 and sold for $141.3 million at Christie’s in 2015, remains an auction record for both a Giacometti and a sculpture.

He learned from people like the art dealer Pierre Matisse, the architect Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the Solow Building, and William Rubin, then the powerful curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, according to Ms. Hattis, Mr. Rubin’s widow.

“Sheldon was a serious and passionate collector” Ms. Hattis said. “He didn’t need art to gain social status in New York City. He was collecting for genuine reasons. He did it to enhance his own life, for his own sense of beauty and living with greatness.”

For most people, his taste is on view at the Solow Building, where Giacometti’s 9-foot-tall standing woman is parked by the elevators.

“Dubuffet, Kline, Diebenkorn, Miró, Matisse — he used to keep all these extraordinary pictures there,” said Brett Gorvy, a co-owner of Levy Gorvy Gallery and former Christie’s executive. “He was very forward- thinking as the owner of the building to have art displayed on the ground floor. How many collectors have a front window on 57th Street?”

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