Music Executive Mo Ostin's US$120m art collection heads to New York auctions in May

The late American record executive Mo Ostin is perhaps best known as a powerful record executive who helped develop the careers of mega music stars like Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and Madonna during his 30-year tenure at Warner Bros. Records.

But equally important for the industry force 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.” 

This May, his art collection will be offered across both a dedicated evening sale and single-owner sequence in the Contemporary Day Auction at Sotheby's New York. Valued in excess of US$120 million, the grouping comprises more than 30 rarely seen works by a full spectrum of artists, from René Magritte and Pablo Picasso, to Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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

René Magritte | L’Empire des lumières, 80.3 x 65.7 cm (1951) | Estimate: US$35 - 55 million 

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)

At the heart of his collection were two Magritte paintings that take pride of place in the family room at Ostin's home, hanging on either side of the fireplace.

The first is a 1951 canvas L’Empire des lumières (The Empire of Light), a definitive image of Surrealism which depicts the paradoxical image of a nocturnal landscape beneath a sunlit sky. Carrying an estimate between US$35 and 45 million, it is one of seventeen similar oil paintings by the artist, yet this version has not been seen in public since Ostin acquired it in 1979.

The majority of the series are 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 version was sold at Sotheby's London last year for £59.4 million (around US$78.4 million), an auction record price for the artist.

The other, Le Domaine d’Arnheim (The Domain of Arnheim), executed in 1949, portrays a curtained broken window framing a mountain top in the shape of an eagle. Sharing its name with that of a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, it is expected to fetch between US$15 and 25 million.

René Magritte | Le Domaine d’Arnheim, 99.7 x 81.3 cm (1949) | Estimate: US$15 - 25 million

Cy Twombly | Untitled (1962) | Estimate: US$14 - 18 million

Led by Mo Ostin, Warner Bros. signed major stars including Jimi Hendrix (left) and Prince (Right)

Born in 1927 in New York City, Mo Ostin moved with his family to Los Angeles at age 13, where they ran a small produce market. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics at UCLA, he enrolled in the university's Law School, but dropped out in 1954 in order to support his wife and young son. 

Led by his childhood neighbor, Ostin headed into the direction of music, working as a comptroller at Clef (later renamed as Verve Records) – a company which Frank Sinatra tried to acquire but failed. Still impressed by the label's artist-first management style and roster which included jazz stars such as Charlie Parker, 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. Among the major signings during his three-decade tenure with Warner Bros. included Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Madonna, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Paul Simon, to name a few.

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 lead DreamWorks SKG Records. 

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

Jean-Michel Basquiat | Moon View, 167.6 x 153 cm (1984) | Estimate: US$7 - 10 million

Pablo Picasso | Paysage, 128.3 x 162 cm (1965) | Estimate: US$7 - 10 million

As an executive, Ostin was widely recognized for his unflagging support for artists. Believing the industry was about freedom and creative control, he always put artists before himself, and trusted their talents wholeheartedly.

In a rare interview with The Times back in the 1990s, he mentioned having a special connection to Pablo Picasso – whose works are part of his collection – from his time at Verve Records. 

A passionate art lover, Ostin once invited the Spanish master to produce a full-length animated film about Don Quixote. Despite having signed a hand-written contract, the project was ultimately dropped as no film studio was ready to take it on, fearing it was too risky. 

He famously regretted the missed opportunity: “How could they pass up the chance to be involved with one of the true geniuses of the 20th Century?" Ostin said. "It was just incomprehensible to me. I mean, where were these guys at?”

Joan Mitchell | Untitled (circa 1958) | Estimate: US$7 - 10 million

Willem De Kooning | Two Figures, 27.9 x 30.5 cm(1946-1947) | Estimate: US$5 - 7 million

Picasso aside, the visual art to which Ostin gravitated was diverse, ranging in date from 1915 through to ones created as recently as 2019. 

While 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.

Before the collection goes on sale in mid-May, it will embark on a global tour with stops in Taipei, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and finally making its way back to New York. 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Sale: The Mo Ostin Collection Evening Auction
Date and Time: 16 May 2023 | 6:00 pm (New York Local Time)

Sale: Contemporary Day Auction 
Date and Time: 19 May 2023 | 10:00 am (New York Local Time)


  • Taipei | 21-22 April
  • Los Angeles | 20-24 April
  • Hong Kong | 24-26 April
  • New York | 6-18 May