Disgraced Madoff investor’s Rothkos turn up in Moscow

J. Ezra Merkin offloads $310m collection


A $310m cache of Rothko paintings, sold earlier this year by one of the key financiers involved in the Madoff scandal, will go on show at Moscow’s Garage Center for Contemporary Art next spring. The centre was founded in 2008 by Russian heiress Dasha Zhukova and her billionaire partner Roman Abramovich.

The collection comprises 12 paintings and a work on paper which date from 1949 to 1969. They include Rothko’s historic studies for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building and Harvard University.

The collection was sold last July in a mysterious deal brokered by PaceWildenstein’s director Marc Glimcher, who reaped an $11m commission in what was probably the largest private transaction of the year. The seller was New York financier J. Ezra Merkin, a central figure implicated in the $50bn Bernard Madoff fraud. The identity of the buyer was not revealed. Merkin acquired the bulk of the collection from PaceWildenstein, buying from 2003 to 2008. He paid about $90m for seven paintings sold by Rothko’s family. The receipts from the current sale are frozen while New York’s state attorney investigates the Madoff case.

Glimcher, who represents the Rothko estate, said he had been discussing the idea of a Rothko show with Garage international co-ordinator Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst since 2008. Rothko, an American abstract expressionist painter who committed suicide in 1970, is Russian born. St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum held a Rothko retrospective in 2004. The Garage exhibition, however, is the artist’s first solo show in Moscow. “The idea of doing a Rothko show in Moscow was a dream,” said Glimcher, but “I knew it wasn’t going to happen. There was no way to get the work.” That changed when Merkin, the world’s largest private Rothko collector, was implicated in the Madoff mess.

News of the show raises speculation that the buyer may be a Russian. Show organisers deny it is Abramovich. “We can absolutely confirm that the owner isn’t Roman Abramovich, or any organisation relating to him,” said Dent-Brocklehurst.

The works will be displayed in a new gallery under construction within the Garage, a 1926 Melnikov-designed bus depot. UK-based architect Jamie Fobert (who built the Frieze tent in 2006) is designing the 600 sq. m space to museum standards, according to Glimcher. The show will run for three months.