US$43.3m René Magritte leads the US$123m sale of music powerhouse Mo Ostin's art collection

After Christie's wrapped up the 16-lot auction of magazine mogul S.I. Newhouse's art collection with a total of US$177.8 million last week, its rival Sotheby's presented another major single-owner sale on 17 May, selling 15 artworks from the estate of record legend Mo Ostin.

All but one work – a Willem de Kooning oil and charcoal on paper – found new buyers, generating a sum of US$123 million with a sell-through rate of 93.3%. 

The star lot of the sale was an iconic painting by Belgium Surrealist artist René Magritte, L’Empire des lumières, which pictures a night-time street scene juxtaposed by a bright blue sky above. Fetching US$43.3 million with fees, it became the second-most expensive painting by the artist ever sold at auction.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker took to the auction podium

René Magritte's L’Empire des lumières (The Empire of Light) sold for US$42.3 million to lead the sale

As the powerful chief executive of Warner Bros. Records for more than three decades, Mo Ostin was widely recognized for having shaped the insdustry with his "music first" philosophy, which was that the artist is king in the struggle between art and commerce. 

And it was that passionate championing of artists that set him apart from his rivals in the industry, allowing him to amass a dream-like roster of megastars – including Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Madonna and Charlie Parker – at the labels that he worked with.

The music powerhouse was born in 1927 in New York City, and at age 13 he moved with his family to Los Angeles, where they ran a small produce market. Led by his childhood neighbor, Ostin headed into the direction of music after earning a bachelor's degree in economics at UCLA and dropping out the university's Law School in 1954, working as a comptroller at Clef (later renamed as Verve Records) – a company which Frank Sinatra tried to acquire but failed.

Neil Young, Lorne Michaels and Paul Simon applauded Mo Ostin's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003

Still impressed by the label's artist-first management style and roster which included jazz stars like Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, when Sinatra decided to form his own company Reprise Records in 1960, he hired Ostin to head it. 

Following the acquisition of the label by Warner Bros. in 1963, Ostin took on a greater role as an executive and immediately embarked on a series of signings that would quickly establish the label at the vanguard of the wave of popular music and culture.

After years of continuing success, Ostin departed with Warner Bros. in 1993, and joined forces with entertainment moguls David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg to head DreamWorks SKG Records. 

Mo Ostin (right) signed 19-year-old Prince (left) in 1977

Led by Mo Ostin, Warner Bros. signed major stars including Madonna (left) and Red Hot Chilli Peppers (right)

While Mo Ostin is best known as a giant among record business leaders, equally important for him was the art. As described by American actor Steve Martin, “Mo’s love of art was second only to his love of music. He talked music and painting with the same fervor and perception, and he thrilled to any discussion of either.” 

Art was woven into Ostin’s life since childhood, when he regularly visited museums with his parents. Passionate about seeking out fresh ideas, the visual art to which Ostin gravitated was diverse, ranging in date from 1915 through to ones created as recently as 2019. 

Though he would generously loan artworks to museums for major exhibitions, the full scope of his collection has remained relatively unknown, with many never having been seen outside his home since Ostin acquired them – including the star lot of the sale, Magritte's 1951 canvas L’Empire des lumières (The Empire of Light).

Surrealist pioneer René Magritte

Lot 3 | René Magritte | L'Empire des lumières, Oil on canvas
Executed in August - September 1951
80.3 x 65.7 cm

  • Alexander Iolas, New York (acquired from the artist)
  • William Alexander, New York (probably acquired from the above)
  • David Geffen, Los Angeles (acquired from the above through Pace Gallery in 1979)
  • Acquired from the above in 1979 by the present owner

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 55,000,000
Hammer Price: US$36,500,000
Sold: US$42,273,000

Taking pride of place in the family room at Ostin's home, L’Empire des lumières (The Empire of Light) is a definitive image of Surrealism which depicts the paradoxical image of a nocturnal landscape beneath a sunlit sky. After Ostin acquired it from David Geffen in 1979, the artwork has never been seen in public.

Bidding for the work opened at US$24 million and drew four interested buyers, including a floor bidder and three collectors on the phone with Simon Shaw (Vice Chairman of Global Fine Arts in New York), Thomas Denzler (Senior Specialist, Fine Arts in New York), and Brooke Lampley (Chairman and Worldwide Head of Sales for Global Fine Art), respectively. 

Moving in increments of US$500,000, the nearly ten-minute bidding battle saw all parties making slow and cautious moves, with the auctioneer constantly attempting to rouse higher bids. Eventually, as Brooke Lampley's client dropped out at US$36.5 million, the lot was hammered to the telephone bidder with paddle number 12 represented by Simon Shaw.

With fees, the lot sold for US$42.3 million, the second highest auction price paid for a work by the Surrealist painter.

Simon Shaw won the lot for his client with paddle number 12

L’Empire des lumieres became the inspiration for the horror movie, The Exorcist (1973)

René Magritte | L’Empire des lumières, 114.5 x 146 cm (1961) | Sold: £59.4 million, Sotheby's London, 2022 (Auction Record for the artist)

Over time, the Belgium artist explored and adapted the theme within L’Empire des lumières; each masterpiece featuring a quiet home, alternately glowing from within and bathed in lamplight, and yet each with its own distinct aura. This movie-like image later became the inspiration for a scene in the 1974 Golden Globe-winning horror movie, The Exorcist.

Between 1949 and 1965, Magritte executed a total of seventeen similar oils on the subject; and the majority of the series are now owned by major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, and The Menil Collection in Houston.

One of them, a larger horizontally composed version, was sold at Sotheby's London last year for £59.4 million (around US$78.4 million), setting a new auction record for the artist. 

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 9 | René Magritte | Le Domaine d’Arnheim, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1949
99.7 x 81.3 cm

  • Alexander Iolas, New York (acquired from the artist in 1949)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Young, Philadelphia (acquired from the above and until at least 1969) 
  • Gerrit L. Lansing, New York
  • David Geffen, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in 1977)
  • Acquired from the above in 1990 by the present owner

Estimate: US$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer Price: US$16,200,000
Sold: US$18,948,300

Lot 6 | Cy Twombly | Untitled, Oil, wax crayon and graphite on canvas
Executed in 1962
126 x 144 cm

  • Madeleine Everaert, Brussels
  • Daled Collection, Brussels (acquired by 1993)
  • Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG, Zurich
  • Private Collection
  • David Tunkl Fine Art, Los Angeles
  • Acquired from the above in May 2004 by the present owner

Estimate: US$14,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: US$10,000,000
Sold: US$11,824,500

Lot 4 | Jean-Michel Basquiat | Moon View, Acrylic, colored Xerox paper collage and oilstick on canvas
Executed in 1984
167.6 x 153 cm

  • Larry Gagosian Gallery, New York
  • The Broad Art Foundation (acquired from the above in 1984)
  • Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired from the above in October 2010 by the present owner

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: US$9,100,000
Sold: US$10,790,400

Lot 11 | Joan Mitchell | Untitled, Oil on canvas
Executed circa 1958
190.5 x 180.3 cm

  • Robert Miller Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above in December 1988 by the present owner

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: US$6,800,000
Sold: US$8,147,700

Lot 10 | Pablo Picasso | Paysage, Oil and Ripolin on canvas
Executed in Mougins on 4 May 1965
128.3 x 163 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Private Collection
  • Waddington Galleries, London
  • Private Collection, United Kingdom
  • Waddington Galleries, London
  • Acquired from the above in 1999 by the present owner

Estimate: US$7,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: US$6,500,000
Sold: US$7,803,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: The Mo Ostin Collection Evening Auction 
Date: 17 May 2023
Number of Lots: 15
Sold: 14
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 93.3%
Sale Total: US$123,705,550