“Hereinafter, The Painting”
I saw the fake one first, years ago, printed out in a report tacked on to a court filing out of New York City. There were two pictures on the first page, two sides of a painting, back and front. On the left, two rectangles, black over crimson on a background of lighter red. On the right, a wooden stretcher bisected by a crossbar. The edges of a canvas, folded over and stapled, were visible along the edge. There was a name on the back, too, and a date, written in fuzzy, impasto caps: “MARK ROTHKO/1956.”
It was the spring of 2013. I was thirty-one years old and had just moved in with the woman I would marry. I had come to Toronto two years earlier for a minimum wage magazine job at the tail end of a depression that had, for the fourth or fifth time in my twenties, scrambled my life and left me starting from what felt like scratch. Every story seemed like a last opportunity then, a last chance to prove something to myself, about who I could be and what I could do with my life.
Looking at that report, I didn’t know that it would be a story, though I thought it might be. I certainly didn’t think I’d be puzzling over it for the next eight years. It was written by a kind of fine art scientist named James Martin. It described his analysis of a 50-inch by 40-inch oil painting, Untitled, 1956. “Hereinafter” the report said, “the “Painting”.”
It was ten pages long. It broke down primers and pigments and binders. It looked at crossbar marks and the history of paint. It came to a stark conclusion. The painting, which the oldest art gallery in New York had sold to a Gucci magnate for $8.3 million, was a fraud. It wasn’t a Rothko. He didn’t paint it. Not “in 1956 or any other date.”
In November 2011, not long after he joined the New York Observer, a newspaper then owned by a thirty-year-old Jared Kushner, Michael H. Miller, an art reporter sitting on about $100,000 in student debt, received a short press release from the offices of M. Knoedler & Co., a 146-year-old art gallery on the Upper East Side. The note was barely three sentences long. It announced that, effective immediately, the gallery, which was older than the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had survived the Civil War and the Great Depression, would permanently close. The news, and the manner of its delivery, came as a shock in the New York art world and even inside the gallery itself. “It really seemed from the outside…like people just showed up that morning and had no idea that they were going to close,” Miller said.
Knoedler wasn’t the largest or the wealthiest gallery in New York. It wasn’t Gagosian, or Pace. But it was a fixture, in the city and the scene. “It was absolutely top tier, but a little bit like a dowager lady,” said Pepe Karmel, an art historian at NYU. Knoedler had been the gallery of choice for the robber barons of the 1920s. It exhibited and sold works by the likes of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. “Everything they did was first rate and top drawer,” Karmel, said. “It was a key part of New York City history.”
That’s what made the sudden closure so strange. The recession was over. The high-end art market was booming. The very rich, the only customers who really matter in art, were doing fine. And in the space of three sentences, with no forewarning, in the middle of an exhibition, the oldest, most storied gallery in the city was done. “A lot of galleries at that time were closing, but nothing of the stature of Knoedler. That seemed kind of impossible,” Miller said. “It was clear that there was something fishy there.”
What struck me first, when I finally saw the real thing, was the scale: a massive plane of orange and red that filled my field of vision, an empire of rectangles and colours on a Dallas wall. At the edges, in between the blocks, were whole border worlds of porous fades. Everything bled into everything else. Nothing was contained. I had always known art as something you approached, something you peered at and “hmm’d.” The Rothko wasn’t like that. It loomed. It leaned into me. It occupied space. “It’s not easy,” Rothko’s son, Christopher, told me years later. “He really asks a lot of you. And the more you’re willing to put in, the more you’re going to get out.”
In the fall of 2004, Domenico De Sole, a fashion kingpin who ran Gucci for ten years and later co-founded Tom Ford, approached the Knoedler Gallery with his wife Eleanor. De Sole, who later became the chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, was, along with his wife, a noted collector of what might be considered the art of the regular rich—very expensive, first-class work that is a level below the most famous names.
The De Soles went to Knoedler because they were interested in acquiring a work by Sean Scully, an Irish-American abstract artist known for his large, colourful images of bars and squares. Knoedler didn’t have any Scullys; the gallery wasn’t doing well with living artists. But Ann Freedman, Knoedler’s president, did offer to show the De Soles something better. In her office, she said, she had a newly discovered work by Mark Rothko, one of Scully’s forbearers and perhaps the most acclaimed American artist of the 20th century.
By any rational measure, the De Soles were and are very rich. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily Mark Rothko rich. A single Rothko sold at auction in 2007 for $72.8 million. The record price paid for a Scully was about $1.7 million. The Rothko Freedman showed the De Soles that day wasn’t prime, exactly. It was on the smaller side, about 4 feet by 3.5 feet. But it was painted in 1956, in the middle of Rothko’s classic period. It was an arresting crimson, black and red. It was on canvas and it was in impeccable condition. Given all that, the multimillion dollar price Knoedler offered was something of a steal.
The next time I saw a Rothko, a real Rothko, was in Detroit in 2015. It was a seven-and-a-half-foot canvas of floating colours, with blocks of brown and orange that seemed somehow superimposed on the background in 3D. The year before I saw it, Orange, Brown, 1963 was nearly sold off, along with the rest of Detroit’s municipal art collection, after the city declared bankruptcy. For a time, the people of Detroit faced a choice: keep their public art, including works by Van Gogh, Matisse and Diego Rivera, or salvage their municipal pension system. “Finally, I want to ask you a question that you were already asked—to give you another shot at it,” a judge asked Detroit’s lawyers in a bankruptcy hearing that summer: “Why not monetize the art?”
Michael Miller, the art reporter who covered Knoedler’s sudden closure, graduated from New York University with two degrees in English Literature in 2010, two years into the financial crisis, and eighteen months after his parents—who had cosigned his student loans—lost their jobs and eventually their home. For Miller and his family, it was a savage time, as it was for many Americans. His parents struggled to find and keep work. His mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Every month, he strained to make loan payments, pay his rent and still have enough money left over for a carton of eggs and a can of beans—“my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess,” he wrote in 2018.
At the same time, even as he wondered seriously if he wouldn’t be better off dead than this deeply in debt, Miller was climbing up in the small world of New York arts writers, dealing with the gallerists, brokers and billionaires fuelling the art market’s lunatic rise. The discord was never lost on him. “It was really during the recession, which was a terrible time for everyone. For me personally, it was terrible,” he said. “And there was a certain indignity to working for Jared Kushner for $30,000 a year.”
It’s fair to say that when the De Soles left Knoedler that day, they did not expect to get conned. The art world may be full of exaggeration and sketchy deals. But the Knoedler name had an old-world heft. Its endurance alone spoke volumes. Nothing too shady could have survived that long.
Freedman’s official story was that the Rothko had come to the gallery by way of a mysterious Swiss-Mexican collector who had recently died and left his art to his children. She wouldn’t identify the collector—in internal Knoedler correspondence, he was known as “Mr. X,” “Secret Santa” and “the goose that laid the golden egg”—but she told the De Soles there was no question about the painting’s authenticity. It had been “viewed” by leading art experts, she said, and was set to be included in an updated version of Rothko’s catalogue raisonné, the definitive inventory of his works on canvas.
The De Soles agreed to buy the painting for $8.3 million. It was the most they had ever spent on a single work of art. After the purchase went through, they lent it to a Swiss museum. Then, once it was returned, they hung it on the wall, under glass, in their home on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. It remained there for the next six-and-a-half years. It was still there, hanging near two Twomblys and an Ellsworth Kelly, when the De Soles read about Knoedler’s closure in The New York Times.
The townhouse that once housed the Knoedler Gallery, at 19 East 70th Street in Manhattan, is half a block in from Central Park and ten blocks south of the Met. In 2011, not long after the gallery closed, its long-time owner, Michael Hammer, the grandson of industrialist Armand Hammer, (and the father of the actor Armie Hammer) sold the building at the cut-rate price of $31 million. The building was flipped again in 2013 for $35 million. Then, in 2014, Leon Black, a private equity billionaire known in part for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, bought the space for $51 million.
When I stood outside the townhouse in the fall of 2019, a temporary construction wall blocked the exterior where the Knoedler façade had stood for almost forty years. Inside, construction lamps lit what was left of the ground floor. Black, who Bloomberg once called “the most feared man in the most aggressive realm of finance” was renovating it as a private home.
A leveraged buyout specialist, Black made much of his money acquiring companies, slashing costs and reaping fees. But he’s also a noted art collector. He was, until last year, the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art; in 2012, he bought Munch’s The Scream in a private sale for $119.9 million. Between the time Epstein was convicted—of soliciting a child for prostitution—in 2008 and the time he committed suicide in 2019, Black paid him more than $50 million, according to The New York Times. Among other tasks, Epstein helped Black manage his $1 billion art collection.
A few blocks south of the old Knoedler townhouse, beneath an upscale Italian sandwich shop and just off Madison Avenue, a silver nameplate sits bolted on to a large, wooden door. There are two words etched on to the plate. Mashed together they form a stylized brand: FreedmanArt. Anne Freedman left Knoedler more than a year before the gallery’s sudden collapse. But for years she had managed Knoedler’s most important, and most lucrative, file: The mysterious masterworks of the late Mr. X.
The so-called “golden goose” paintings had come to Knoedler through an unlikely broker. A long-time gallery employee and art world gadfly had introduced Freedman to an obscure Long Island art dealer named Glafira Rosales. Rosales told Freedman she represented the heirs of a European businessman who had made a fortune after relocating to Mexico before World War II. Because of his business interests—he was in banking and industry—he travelled frequently to the United States. And over a period of decades beginning in the 1940s, he had acquired a small museum’s worth of paintings directly from the some of the most acclaimed American artists of the day.
The mystery millionaire—Freedman never learned his name—had died in the early 1990s. His heirs, a son and daughter, inherited his entire collection, which included works by Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. The son now splits his time between Mexico City and Zurich. He was interested in selling off his share of the collection, quietly and privately. Could Freedman help?
Indeed, she could. She never met the heir. She never learned his name. But for fourteen years, she bent the entire business of the gallery around his collection. Between 1994 and 2008, at Freedman’s direction, Knoedler bought dozens of paintings from Rosales and sold them on to a who’s who of global capitalism. Goldman Sachs executive Jack Levy bought a Pollock for $2 million. UFC mogul Frank Fertitta paid $7.2 million for a Rothko. Real estate investor Jay Shidler, the richest man in Hawaii, spent more than $3 million combined for a Krasner and a Motherwell.
Knoedler’s profits from the Golden Goose collection were massive. “[They] kept the gallery in business basically,” Miller said. In one case, Knoedler paid Rosales $80,000 for a Krasner then sold it on for $1 million. In another, Knoedler bought a Pollock for less than $1 million then sold it to a hedge fund manager for more than $15 million. All told, Knoedler pocketed over $60 million from the Rosales paintings before Freedman left the gallery in 2009.
For Freedman, Rosales had been like a creature out of a fine art fairy tale. “She was effectively a stranger who had never really sold art through that gallery or any other gallery before,” Miller said. “And she suddenly had this treasure trove of unheard-of masterpieces by the great artists of the 20th century.”
After I left Miller at The New York Times building in Manhattan, where he now works, I took the subway to Woodside, a neighbourhood in Queens. There, behind a small brick home, on a lot between two apartment buildings, I met the artist Zhang Hongtu in his studio. Zhang was born into a Muslim family in the Gansu province in 1943, six years before Mao founded Communist China. He studied art, survived the Cultural Revolution, and worked for years designing jewelry for export. “The funny thing was, at that time in China, nobody was allowed to wear jewellery,” he told me. “Jewellery [was] bourgeois.”
In 1982, Zhang emigrated to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League, the same school where Rothko had spent eight formative months in 1925. He found New York incredibly liberating. At the League, there was no one standing over his shoulder telling him: “You cannot do that. You can only do that.”
For the first time, he was able to follow his own instincts. He developed his own style. He became more political, more pop-y. In 1987, he drew a portrait of Mao on a Quaker Oats box. In 1989, after Tiananmen Square, he painted a parody of the Last Supper, with Mao’s head on every body, onto the ripped-out pages of Mao’s Little Red Book.
Still, well into his fifties, Zhang was living a double life in New York. By day, he worked a jackhammer, cutting stone on construction sites. At night, after a brief nap at the kitchen table, he painted and sculpted and worked on his art. That only began to change in the mid-90s. In 1994, Zhang sold The Last Banquet—the Mao parody—for $50,000. The next year, he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Soon his older pieces began to climb in value. A gallery in Taiwan took him on full-time.
By the time I met him, Zhang had come to be considered one of the founders of China’s Political Pop art movement, the same one that made Ai Wei Wei famous. He wasn’t rich from his art. His work sold in the thousands, not millions. But he was comfortable. Sitting on folding chairs in his paint-flecked studio, he chatted happily about art and his career.
I wanted to know how he kept going all those years, through exile in the countryside, and making cheap jewelry, and hammering stone. “I was always very confident,” he said. “I always thought I was going to be a great artist, like Picasso.” Even in the hard years, he was happy. “This world doesn’t need so many Picassos,” he said. “But if you are a good artist, if you do your best, people will open to you.”
I had been in Dallas that day, the day I first saw a real Rothko, touring a fighter jet factory for a business magazine. The factory looked like a tipped-over skyscraper, long and low and drab on the outside. Inside, the jets, part of an overbudget trillion-dollar program, were arranged by construction stage. Every part of every one of them glowed a minty green. It was the strangest, most arresting shade. The jets all looked edible, or like toys. Later that summer, on a runway near Pensacola, Florida, one of them, valued at $232 million, burst into flames.
In the early 1980s, while Zhang was studying at the Art Students League, he befriended an older Chinese artist named Pei-Shen Qian. Qian was a gifted technical painter with a solid following in China, but like Zhang he initially struggled in America. “He was kind of frustrated because of the language problem, the connection problem,” Zhang told The New York Times. “He was not that happy.” By the early ’90s, he had fallen out of touch with his friends. For a time, he sold his work on the street.
But around the time Zhang’s own work began to sell, Qian’s career, too, took off. At some point in the late 1980s, he met a man named Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz in Manhattan. Over the next several decades, the Spaniard would buy dozens of paintings from Qian, for hundreds and eventually thousands of dollars each. By the mid-90s he was effectively Qian’s only customer.
The money was decent. “He wasn’t making millions,” Miller said. But he was finally something close to middle class. He bought a home, in Queens. He began to work full-time on his art. The only problem was, the art wasn’t his, not really. He was painting it. But it wasn’t being sold under his name.
When Bergantinos Diaz met Qian, he was in a relationship with Glafira Rosales. They opened an art business together. They had a daughter. Over a decade and a half, they made millions selling Qian’s art, mostly to the Knoedler Gallery. They bought him old canvases and old nails. They gave him old paints—though some weren’t quite old enough. They even took requests. When Freedman asked if the Golden Goose collection had any Pollocks, Qian painted two.
Together, Rosales and Bergantinos Diaz made $33 million off Qian’s work. For eight of the paintings, they paid Qian at total of $50,400. “I think he was a kind of patsy,” Miller said. “They just needed somebody to do it. And he did it.”
My intro into the Knoedler affair came in 2013, when I was working for a business magazine, the oldest business periodical in the country. (It stopped publishing print issues in 2016. For several years afterward it operated as little more than a Twitter account.) I’d read a story in The New York Times that mentioned the involvement of a Toronto theatre mogul named David Mirvish. Mirvish was and is a big name in Canadian business. In New York, his involvement was a curiosity. In Canada, it could be big news. (Such is the nature of Canadian reporting.)
I spent most of that year on and off trying to figure out what Mirvish’s interest had been in the paintings. But the more time I spent with depositions and financial statements, with transcripts and expert reports and carefully lawyered statements about how one judges exactly whether one thing or another is real, the more I found myself drawn to the pictures themselves. It was a trying time, personally. I felt stuck in the story, dug in without any clear way out to something revelatory.
But the more I blew deadlines and lay awake, feeling stress hives grow, the more I stared at the black-and-white copies of copies in those reports and wondered what they’d look like real. I spent days researching precise details about the art—details I knew I’d end up cutting from the final piece. I even went to the empty location of Mirvish’s own, long-closed, bookstore in Toronto to see if I could spy the fifty-foot Frank Stella he had once kept on the wall. The doors were locked. The windows were covered. I went right up to them but couldn’t see anything inside.
The Knoedler affair began to unravel, as things often do in the art world, quietly and out of the spotlight. (There is nothing the wealthy deplore more than a scene). In 2002, Levy, the Goldman Sachs executive, submitted the Pollock he purchased from Knoedler—a small greenish canvas painted with oil and enamel—to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) for review. The IFAR report, when it came back, was scathing. The experts who viewed the painting found it “limp” and “formulaic.” The story Knoedler told about the painting’s history was “inconceivable,” “improbable,” and “difficult to believe.”
IFAR refused to certify the Pollock and Knoedler bought it back. The gallery then sold it on, in a complex deal, to Freedman, her husband and Mirvish. The brutal report didn’t stop Knoedler from selling more paintings from the collection. In fact, Freedman and Knoedler kept selling Golden Goose paintings—with a new backstory—for another seven years. They kept selling them after a second organization, the Dedalus Foundation, cast doubt on seven more paintings. (One Dedalus board member called them “laughable fakes”.) They wouldn’t stop selling them until a London money man’s untimely divorce threatened to push the whole thing into the public eye.
By the time I published my story on Mirvish, a complicated, business-heavy piece about art law, ownership and authentication, I was something close to obsessed with the art itself. I started hunting down real versions of all the fakes I’d seen—Motherwell’s Elegies, Newman’s shades of black on white, Rothko’s floating haze—in Dallas and Detroit, in Buffalo, Toronto and New York.
Working in Ottawa one day, I went to the Canadian National Gallery to see Rothko’s No. 16, 1957. I was months into a long feature about a far-right Canadian media figure at the time, part of a series of pieces I wrote in that period about the ugly wave of populist politics then sweeping the world. The Rothko outstripped anything I’d seen before: an almost 10-foot wall of colour and mood. I stood for so long in front of it that my legs began to twitch.
Canada’s National Gallery bought No. 16, 1957 in 1993 for C$1.8 million. The purchase caused incredible controversy. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with these jerks,” one member of Canadian parliament said at the time. If sold today, the painting would probably gross something close to $100 million. Financially, it’s one of the best investments the country has ever made.
In the end, it wasn’t a Rothko that brought Knoedler down. It was another Pollock. Pierre Lagrange, a Belgian hedge fund manager once called London’s “zaniest financier,” bought a Golden Goose Pollock from Knoedler in 2007. (At least, he thought he bought it from Knoedler. At the time of the sale, the gallery actually co-owned the painting with Mirvish.) He kept the Pollock in his London home until, at the age of forty-eight, he accepted that he was gay, left his wife and precipitated a costly divorce.
As part of his settlement, Lagrange, who looks like an aging, well-groomed werewolf, had to sell his Pollock. But none of the major auction houses, not Christie’s, not Sotheby’s, would take it. There were too many questions about the origins of the work, questions that Knoedler refused to answer. Furious, Lagrange met with Knoedler’s new president, Frank Del Deo, in New York. He demanded the gallery take the painting back. He threated to sue. The gallery refused.
That’s when Lagrange submitted the painting to James Martin, at Orion Analytical—the same scientist who would later study the De Soles’ Rothko. Martin examined the canvas. He tested the paints. He found the work contained at least two pigments that weren’t developed until well after Pollock’s death, in 1956. He concluded, as he later would with the Rothko, that the painting was fake.
In November 2011, Lagrange sent the Orion report to Knoedler. The next day, the gallery shut its doors and announced, via press release, that it was closing forever. Lagrange sued. Other buyers followed. Soon, the Knoedler affair was the biggest story in the art world. “There was a period where you couldn’t go to a dinner party without there being a conversation about it,” Karmel said when I spoke to him for the Mirvish piece.
(Divorce has long played a strong supporting role in the art market. In Sept. 2021, Sotheby’s won the right to auction off an estimated $600 million worth of art owned by divorcing real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife Linda. Included in that collection was Rothko’s No. 7 (1951), which was eventually sold, in November 2021, for $82.5 million.)
In the summer of 2016, after covering Hillary Clinton’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I drove across Pennsylvania to meet my girlfriend in Pittsburgh. It had been a long trip. I had turned thirty-five on the road, the night after Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president in a half empty arena in Cleveland. My girlfriend and I were spending two nights in Pittsburgh to celebrate. One afternoon, we went to the Carnegie Museum of Art. They had a Rothko up, a gorgeous vertical rectangle of yellow on blue. But for whatever reason, I don’t remember much about it. I sought it out. It was there. I saw it. But it didn’t stick with me. A month after the trip, we found out my girlfriend was pregnant. Our daughter was born about nine months after I got home.
Most of the lawsuits stemming from the Golden Goose frauds were settled out of court. Only the De Soles went all the way to trial. When the case finally came before a judge in 2016, Miller was there, in court, every day. “It’s rare for something like the De Soles trial to happen,” he said. “People just don’t have the energy. They just want their money back or they want to move on to the next thing they can make a profit [from].”
For the De Soles, Miller believed, the trial was as much personal as it was financial. “It was really more of a crusade for them,” he said. It seemed as if, unlike all the other collectors who had shelled out millions for a fake painted in a Queens garage, the De Soles wanted the story public. They wanted to show the world how Knoedler had ripped them off. They wanted Freedman to testify, to lay bare the high class grift of it all.
During the trial, the painting—the fake Rothko with the rectangles of black over crimson on a background of red—stood behind a screen. Every once in a while, a lawyer would haul it out as “Exhibit A.” For Miller, sitting in the gallery, it was tough to separate the canvas from what he knew about its background. “With the knowledge that they’re fake, it’s hard to look at a painting like that and be like, well, it’s still pretty good,” he said.
Eventually, the De Soles settled, just before Michael Hammer, the “shadowy Oz-like rich guy” behind Knoedler, was scheduled to testify. (But not before Hammer’s embarrassing spending habits—fuelled by a Knoedler Black Card—were revealed.) That was no surprise. “It is exceedingly rare for forgery cases to go to trial,” Leila Amineddoleh, an art lawyer, wrote after the case. It is even rarer still for them to end with a jury verdict. In a fight between the very, very rich, after all, you can never be sure who the everyday people on a jury will believe.
Glafira Rosales eventually gave up the fraud and cooperated with an FBI investigation. She spent three months in jail awaiting trial, pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $81 million in restitution. “Last I heard Glafira Rosales was a waitress at a diner in Queens,” Miller said. “It says a lot.” Bergantinos Diaz, who she accused of years of physical and emotional abuse, fled to Spain, where he remains, free. Qian, the artist, went back to Shanghai. A documentary crew recently found him there, living and painting in a small apartment. As for Freedman, to this day, she presents herself as the central victim of the fraud. She’s back selling art, out of her own gallery.
Miller likes art. He finds the business fascinating in a grotesque, mirror-on-society kind of way. But he also sees it as a reflection of a lot of what’s wrong in America today. “It’s easy to pin a lot of things on the art world, but it is a symptom, I think, in the way that student loan debt is a symptom,” he said. “It’s just a distillation of the free market and every horrible thing that it’s capable of doing.”
It’s a world of the rich, by the rich, that’s divorced now from the comparatively normal. “You work in newspapers,” he said. “It’s similar to that, in the way that private equity has profited off of the media industry and left journalists and editors holding the bag. That’s the case in the art world. A small amount of people has gotten very, very rich off it and everyone else has suffered greatly. And there’s no turning back once you get there.”
By the time the De Sole trial ended, my involvement in the Knoedler case had been over for years. I left the magazine in 2014 and joined a newspaper in Toronto. I wrote about crime and life in the city. But mostly my beat was the right-wing political world. In January 2017, I was in Washington D.C. to cover the inauguration of Donald Trump. My girlfriend was five months pregnant with our daughter. We were getting married in a week. I had my flight home scheduled for the afternoon after the inauguration so I could get back on time for my bachelor party.
It’s easy to recognize in retrospect, though I certainly didn’t at time: I wasn’t ready, for any of it. I was obsessed with the idea that having a child was an end, that I had to achieve everything I could before my daughter was born. I had a big feature planned to come out on our wedding day. I met with a book agent just before I left for Washington. When I explained everything that was happening in my life, she looked at me like I was delusional for wanting to write a book too; I probably was. By the time inauguration week came, I was also physically tired, from work and wedding planning and anxiety, and from sleeping on a friend’s small office floor in D.C. (The newspaper couldn’t afford a hotel.)
Two days before the event, after filing a story from the coat room of the National Gallery of Art (there was a desk in there and the WiFi was free), I walked into the gallery itself. I knew the National had a large Motherwell—one of his Elegies, the series Qian had forged—and I wanted to see it. I found it hanging on the wall opposite a huge open staircase. It was large and striking, but distant somehow in the nearly empty gallery.
I spent several hours drifting through the barren buildings—a linked set of two on the National Mall, a short walk from the Capitol where the inauguration would take place. In the East Building, in a tower above the third floor, I found myself in a newly opened gallery space split in two by a white wall that came up just short of the ceiling. From the entrance, I walked first past Newman’s Stations of the Cross—fifteen plays on a theme of black or white stripes on white canvas. Once past the dividing wall, I stepped into a riot of colour and shape. It was an entire room of Rothkos, more in one place than I had seen combined in two countries, four cities and three states.
I sat down on a bench, placed right in the centre of the room, and stared. I was alone with ten paintings that, if sold at auction, would be worth more than half a billion dollars. There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why. Eventually, a woman walked in and I left. Outside, I scribbled a phrase in my notebook, diagonally, across most of a page: “Rothko at the Inauguration.”
What I didn’t notice then, what I wouldn’t have understood if I had, were the name plates on the paintings. Two of them were typical. One was listed as a gift from Enid A. Haupt, a publisher and philanthropist, the other from the collection of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who married into the Mellon fortune and at one time owned as many as thirteen Rothkos. The other eight, though, were unusual. They spoke of another scandal, as large and evocative in its own way as Knoedler’s.
The paintings were all done in an eight-year period between 1949 and 1957. They differed greatly in colour, shade and tone. But they all listed identical provenance. They all came, in other words, from the same source, in the same year. Next to each painting, in the gallery’s records, was a single, mysterious, line:
“Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.”
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT PIECE
At some point in early middle age, having already pursued a career in clinical psychology, Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko’s second child and only son, became, somewhat to his own surprise, the de facto overseer of his father’s legacy. The role was unexpected for Christopher in part because, for most of his childhood, he had had almost no relationship with his father’s art at all. “There really was a very significant portion of my young life where there not only weren’t any paintings in our home, but there was very little museum activity as well,” he said.
He knew his father was an artist, obviously. Even in the 1970s and ’80s, “Mark Rothko” was a famous name. He remembered his father’s studio. He was aware, in a background kind of way, of the long and brutal fight going on over his work. But visual art wasn’t Christopher’s passion. In school, he went into the sciences. He long figured that if he inherited anything from his father, it was his love of Mozart.
But as he grew older, Christopher began to take on more and more responsibility for what might be considered the Business of Rothko. He helped organize shows, spoke at openings, sat on boards, delivered lectures—including his first, in his father’s hometown in Latvia. He edited catalogues and even wrote a book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, that came out in 2015.
That book was the reason I reached out to Christopher, and the reason he met me, in a café near his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I wanted to ask him about the impact the Rothko room had had on me. I was still, years later, trying to figure out how much of that full-body hush I felt was me and how much was the art. Rothko wasn’t surprised I asked. People have for years told him similar stories about his father’s work, and about that room in particular. “Really the magic of his paintings is his ability to find that level of communication that is so elemental,” he said. “He’s able to essentially get under your skin.”
Christopher Rothko’s own relationship to his father’s art has evolved over the years. He’s always been fond of the earlier, lesser known, work. His favourite Rothko might be Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, a big, surrealist canvas that hung in his living room when he was boy. (It now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)
But in recent years, he’s found himself drawn to the dark, almost monochromatic, paintings his father did in the last years of his life. He knows what most people think of that work, that it’s a reflection of how his father felt—depressed, sick and often drunk. But he doesn’t believe it’s that simple. Art isn’t always a reflection of biography, even when the pieces of that biography seem to line up so well. “And then of course,” he said, “the most significant piece of that biography is the fact that my father killed himself.”
Once I knew to look for them, I started seeing them everywhere. They were up in the Met, in tiny print, beneath the details of a large canvas of white and red on yellow. They were there on the opposite wall, too, twice. Tiny words, next to two paintings of scuffy black and grey. In that exhibit alone, I saw them five times, the same words, again and again: “Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation.”
Most of the Rothkos in that exhibit were clustered in a single, dimly lit room. While I looked at them, a class of school children walked in. They huddled around one painting of bold rectangles on yellow. “This is the last painting that he painted that was very, very bright,” their guide said.
After the children left, I stood in front of the painting. As I stared, a third rectangle seemed to emerge, yellow on yellow, between the white and red — brighter and deeper and more insistently there. I walked around the room but kept coming back to that work. Up close, all the brightness seemed overlaid on something dark, a shadow beneath the yellows and the red. Eventually, I moved back to the opposite wall where two late works of brown and grey on paper were hung. There was a faintness to both of them; the paper bled through.
On Wednesday February 25, 1970, Oliver Steindecker, a friend and assistant, found Mark Rothko lying face up on the kitchen floor in the studio where he had been living for the past eighteen months. Rothko’s face was pale, almost jaundiced. He wore black socks and blue long johns. His pants were folded neatly over a chair. On a nearby sink, Steindecker found a double-edged razor blade, one end wrapped in tissue paper. At some point, several hours before, Rothko had used the blade to cut holes, each more than a half inch deep, into the inside of his arms, just below his elbows. He was sixty-six years old. He left behind Christopher and his sister Kate, six and nineteen years old, and almost 2000 unsold works of art.
Rothko had been deeply depressed for more than a year before his death. In 1968, he suffered an aneurysm from which he never fully recovered. He was drinking heavily, had alienated friends, and left his wife, Mell. According to his biographer, James E. B. Breslin, he was also receiving a barrage of conflicting treatments for heart disease, hypertension and depression from a nest of squabbling doctors. And before nearly severing his brachial arteries, he took a potentially lethal dose of Sinequan, an early antidepressant.
Though he was born in New York, Christopher Rothko spent much of his childhood in Ohio, first with his aunt and uncle in Columbus, then later with his sister in Cleveland. In Manhattan, his father had been famous, a legend, even, in certain circles. But in Columbus, “nobody had heard of him,” Christopher said. “So that part of my identity kind of went underground for six or eight years.” In his twenties, he trained as a psychologist. He practiced for a time but as he grew older, he did less therapy as he took on more management of the art.
Christopher Rothko thinks that background, in psychology, is part of the reason why he’s so skeptical about the correlations people often make in his father’s paintings, the links between colour and mood. “I’m always a little suspicious of that kind of socially mediated understanding of how colour, as well as a lot of other things, work,” he said. His father’s paintings are about reflection, he believes. “In the dark works, he’s slowing down the conversation. He’s really insisting that you stop and reflect. You can’t do a drive by and say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw a Rothko there. It was yellow and red and orange.’”
Christopher might be fighting a losing battle on that front. At the Met that day, the guide asked the children what they thought about a painting in grey and black. “He was in the darkness,” one girl, maybe eight or nine years old, said. “He was trying to tell his family he felt alone,” another added. “Well,” the guide replied, “after his dark period, he did commit suicide.”
What is certainly true is that the sunnier works are now more valuable. A big, bright Rothko is a commodity as much as it is a masterpiece. It can be bundled into an art investment fund and sold as a security. It can live unseen for years and even decades, appreciating in a freeport warehouse, where it can’t be taxed or traced as its value grows. “I try not to think about it,” said Laili Nasr, the National Gallery’s leading expert in Rothko, “because I think that gasp that you hear when people come into the Rothko room, a little part of that gasp is: ‘This is worth so much money.’”
In 1958, after several decades of teaching and obscurity, Rothko accepted what was, at the time, the largest commission of his career: $35,000 for a series of murals in the new Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Rothko was by that point well established as a leading American artist. But he was far from rich. In 1949, at the dawn of his most active and artistically fruitful period, his net income had been less than $1,400. (That’s the equivalent of about $15,000 today). By the late 1950s, he was more comfortable, maybe even upper middle class, but he remained deeply ambivalent about money, the rich, and the commercial side of art.
The Seagram’s commission was something of a surprise. Rothko was openly, publicly disdainful of the kind of people who would eat in the Four Seasons. He described the restaurant to his friend John Fisher in 1959 as a “place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.”
After eating in the restaurant himself, Rothko—having spent two years on the murals—cancelled the commission in a huff. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he told another friend, according to Breslin. He returned the money and kept the murals himself.
“As an anarchist, he disapproved of the wealthy and questioned their taste,” Fisher wrote in 1970, after Rothko’s suicide. But in the last decade of his life, only the very wealthy could afford his work. It was a conundrum that dogged him until his death. “When his work became a commodity he could no longer evaluate it,” his friend James Brooks told the journalist Lee Seldes. “He did not know whether people were buying his paintings because they were good or because they were Rothkos.”
Four metro stops from the National Gallery in Washington, an old bench sits in the darkness between four large paintings in muted shades of orange, green and red. In the early 1960s, Duncan Phillips, a Pittsburgh steel heir turned art collector, opened the world’s first Rothko Room in his family’s museum in northwest D.C. Rothko himself advised Phillips on the layout of the room. He wanted the lights dim and the paintings hung low. On a trip to D.C. for Kennedy’s inauguration, in 1961, he even suggested Phillips swap out the chairs in the room for a bench.
That same bench, with wooden slats, was still in the Phillips Collection Rothko Room when I visited. As I shifted to look at the different paintings, the slats moved beneath me. Unlike the wide, airy Rothko room at the National Gallery, the Phillips room has a gently claustrophobic air. If you spend much time inside, it begins to feel like the paintings are closing in—a soft smothering of paint and mood.
On a wall just outside the Rothko Room hangs a painting that feels somewhere between Abstract and Gothic. It features a woman’s profile from the shoulders up, atop a cloudy background of stormy blue. Instead of a face, the painting has what looks like a waning yellow moon melted sideways onto a misshapen skull. The placard next to the painting identified the artist as Theodoros Stamos, a contemporary of and at one time a close friend of Rothko’s. (After his death, Rothko was initially buried in the Stamos family plot.)
Stamos finished Moon Chalice in 1949, when he was twenty-six years old. Eleven years later, he would enter what would become the worst, most personal legal battle in the history of modern art. By the time it was over, Stamos would be in ruins. His career collapsed. His reputation never recovered. Christopher Rothko would end up, according to multiple accounts, with the title to his Manhattan home.
The more money Rothko’s paintings earned, the more miserable the painter seemed to grow. “Rothko, I believe, deeply resented being forced into the role of a supplier of ‘material’ either for investment trusts or for aesthetic exercises,” Fisher wrote. And yet, in the last decade of his life, he kept agreeing to long, complicated and often unfavourable contracts with men he seemed to loathe.
In the late 1950s, Rothko had fallen in with an accountant and art world hanger-on named Bernard Reis. At first, Reis just provided Rothko financial advice. But over the next decade, he grew to influence more and more aspects of the painter’s life. When Rothko suffered his aneurysm in 1968, it was Reis who checked him into the hospital, according to Seldes, pushing aside his wife and friends. It was Reis who steered Rothko to the doctor who prescribed him the Sinequan. And it was Reis who, fatefully, pushed Rothko into a financial arrangement with Marlborough gallery and its owner, Frank Lloyd.
“Behind every major art gallery,” Miller told me, “there’s always some shadowy Oz-like rich guy who owns a holding company.” In Seldes’ book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, Lloyd comes off as the shadowy rich guy of shadowy rich guys. “The degree of sadism” at his gallery, Motherwell told Seldes “was unbelievable, even for a big corporation.” (Motherwell eventually left Marlborough for Knoedler. & Co.)
Rothko had a similarly toxic relationship with Lloyd. But until the day he died he continued to do business with the man. In fact, the morning his body was found, he had been scheduled to go to his warehouse with Donald McKinney, a representative from Lloyd’s gallery, to pick out more canvasses for sale.
The prospect of that meeting haunted Rothko. “I think he felt…that he had sold his soul,” McKinney told Breslin. Seldes even believed it played a role in his suicide. “The final turn of the screw that night in February was the new deal Lloyd had proposed and the scheduled warehouse selection…the next day.”
(Seldes may have been something of an unreliable narrator on that point. Later in the book, she entertained the possibility that Rothko, against all evidence, was murdered.)
Rothko’s first ever high-profile show was held at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1945. Decades later, in 1978, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright spirals—would host the first major Rothko retrospective after his suicide.
In 2019, I stood, midway up the central spire in the Guggenheim, looking at a large canvas of black over grey with a white border that Rothko painted in the last year of his life. I was in a dark place, myself, professionally. The paper where I worked, always conservative, had become both harder and less interesting under new management. I no longer covered the far right; at times I felt like I was participating in it by continuing to work there.
All of that was in my mind as I looked at that Rothko at the Guggenheim. The hazy line between the colours on the canvas stood at about the forty-five yard marker on a football field. The grey washed up against the black and receded back again like surf. All around, at every corner, the edges popped out and bled gently into the border.
No one lingered long before the Rothko. (The darker paintings really are Rothko’s deeper cuts.) Ten seconds. twenty seconds. A quick photo and they were gone. Many walked straight by.
Like the works in the National Gallery and at the Met, Untitled (Black on Grey) was donated to the Guggenheim by the Mark Rothko Foundation in 1986. But Untitled had had another stop along the way. Before ending up at the Foundation, Untitled had been sold, cheaply, to the Marlborough Gallery, the spoils in a conflict The New York Times would later call “the betrayal the art world can’t forget.”
According to Rothko’s final will—which Reis amended for him in the last year of his life—the bulk of his artistic estate was to be donated to a foundation set up in his name. Rothko wasn’t always clear what he wanted that foundation to do. He had always expressed a desire that his paintings be held together, in large groups, for public viewing. But he also spoke at times about wanting to set something up to help out mature artists in financial trouble. Before his death, he named Reis, his friend Morton Levine, and Stamos, the painter, as the executors of his estate. After his suicide, the three gathered to decide what should be done with the Mark Rothko Foundation.
What they decided on was a liquidation sale. Despite two of the three having conflicts—Reis was on Marlborough’s payroll and Stamos was setting up a representation deal with the gallery—the executors agreed to consign or sell the entire Rothko collection to Lloyd and Marlborough at a below-market price.
The executors’ goal was to quickly monetize the paintings—which Levine had photographed and catalogued before Rothko’s death—and dole out the cash that came back in grants. The deal left Rothko’s family with just forty-four paintings—the ones that were in the family home when he died. It also eliminated any chance of a significant public future for Rothko’s work. Instead, the paintings were to be parceled and sold off, for Lloyd’s benefit, to buyers Seldes called the “the modern Medicis.”
About three years after my first visit, I returned to the National Gallery in Washington. Harry Cooper, the gallery’s senior curator, and Nasr, an art historian, met me in Cooper’s office. I told them that I wanted to understand what the Rothko room had done to me. (That’s one advantage of being a writer. You can cry in front of paintings and later get one of the world’s leading experts to tell you why.)
The Rothko room itself is one half of a tall, airy hexagon—part of a matching pair—divided in the middle by a white wall on either side and at the top. The so-called Tower Galleries opened in 2016, after a three-year renovation. The towers were always there, but in the original building, they had false floors. “It was a suspended ceiling sort of hanging over the galleries below,” said Cooper.
Since the re-opening, the three new galleries have been dedicated to Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman, and Rothko. There’s no formal policy dictating that that’s how they’ll always be used. But the gallery isn’t likely to make a change any time soon. “We’ve been rotating them a little bit,” Hooper said of the Rothkos. “I thought I would rotate them a lot more, but ones I picked just—it seems so beautiful that I haven’t.”
As for the impact the paintings have, Nasr believes there’s just something about Rothko’s work that lends itself to the “very intimate experience of being surrounded.” It’s not that other artists aren’t great, she said. “But you don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by Pollocks.”
Rothko himself certainly wanted his works seen together. In his later years he repeatedly tried to find or design spaces where they could exist in groups. (One such location, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.) He was also somewhere between finnicky and fanatical about the conditions of their display—from the lighting, dim, to his preference that they all be hung at eye height.
Regardless, there is something, not quite holy, but maybe hallowed, about the Rothko room. It feels like a war memorial, or a cathedral on an off day; it bears inside a hush that’s almost physical. “It’s become a space that you go, sit in and contemplate,” Nasr said.
Just six months after Mark Rothko’s death, Mell Rothko, his widow and Christopher and Kate’s mother, died suddenly of heart failure at the age of forty-eight. When Mell was laid to rest, Kate was shocked by how few of her father’s friends showed up. “She’d known these people for twenty-five years…” Kate said in an interview years later. “It was disillusioning for me to see the superficiality of the art world, and that has never gone away.”
By the time of the funeral, Kate had other reasons to be skeptical about the art world. The details of the estate’s deal with Marlborough were, after much prying, trickling out from the executors. With them came the realization that Rothko’s vast oeuvre was to be sold off, quickly, privately and cheaply, which was devastating to Kate. Under U.S. law at the time, Kate was too young to control her own legal affairs. Herbert Ferber, a friend of the family, became her legal guardian.
In 1971, through Ferber, she sued the executors and Marlborough in New York Surrogate Court, claiming they had entered into a conspiracy to defraud the estate. The executors counter-sued, seeking, among other remedies, the paintings that had been in the Rothko brownstone when Mell died.
What followed was, in the words of The New York Times, “the biggest, most publicized and most protracted legal wrangle in art-world history”—at least until the Knoedler trial in 2014.
For almost four years after filing suit, Kate Rothko Prizel watched as her bank accounts drained and the fight dragged on. She was paying her legal costs out of her own pocket while the executors billed the estate for theirs. She was in school, living with her husband in a Brooklyn apartment. The only “Rothkos” they had were posters from a museum. But just before Christmas, in 1975, more than four years after the initial suit, and almost six years after her father’s death, the surrogate court ruling came down, changing Kate’s life and rewriting the legacy of her father’s art.
After sifting through some five hundred exhibits and 20,000 pages of testimony, Judge Millard L. Midonick found for Kate and Christopher Rothko on almost every aspect of the case. He stripped Reis, Stamos and Levine of their roles with the estate. He cancelled the contracts with Marlborough and ordered the 658 paintings that remained unsold returned. He also found the executors personally liable for millions in damages, which is how Christopher Rothko ended up, many years later, as the owner of Theodoros Stamos’ home.
The East Building of the National Gallery, home to the towers and the Rothko room, was opened to the public in 1978. I.M. Pei, a Chinese-born architect, designed the building’s twin triangle shape to fit an unusual trapezoid of land reserved for the expansion between the original gallery and the Capitol Building. Construction of the airy, skylit structure was funded with a gift from Paul Mellon, Bunny’s husband—and a noted horse racing enthusiast—and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, who was for a time considered the richest woman in the United States. (In her twenties, she almost married Otto von Bismarck’s grandson.)
In 1979, not long after the East wing opened, Arthur Jafa, who would go on to become one of the leading American video artists of the twenty-first century, visited the building as part of an architecture class at Howard University. “There was an exhibition of Mark Rothko, eight brownish paintings that all looked the same to my untrained eye, and they infuriated me,” Jafa told The New Yorker more than forty years later. “I told the instructor it was bullshit. I was irate. I went back to that show ten times, kept going back, couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was obsessed. He’s still my favorite painter.”
The Rothko case didn’t end with Midonick’s ruling. The executors appealed, lost, appealed the appeal and lost again, in November 1977. Lloyd, meanwhile, had already conspired to remove many of his assets, including at least sixty-eight Rothkos, from the court’s jurisdiction by the time the initial ruling came down.
For months before the judgement, Lloyd had been quietly shipping art from New York into Canada. His plan had been to send it from there to Switzerland, where he could lose it in a fog of quiet sales and secret freeports. But before Lloyd could get the works out of Toronto, a mystery caller tipped off a New York lawyer —Howard Eisenberg, who was otherwise unconnected to the case—to the plan. Eisenberg in turn informed the New York Attorney General who informed Edward Ross, Kate Rothko’s lawyer, who then confirmed that Lloyd’s man, Franz Plutschow, was on his way from Zurich to Toronto.
That call set off a five day Christmas caper that saw one group of American lawyers and Canadian private detectives hunting for Plutschow while another set scoured local galleries and warehouses for any sign of the works. According to Seldes, they eventually cracked the case through a simple ruse. One of the lawyers called Lloyd’s Toronto gallery claiming to be a dealer with a client looking for somewhere to store his collection. “The answer,” Seldes wrote, “was almost automatic: Deakin Fine Art.”
On December 23, 1975, the Rothko team, armed with a Canadian court order, raided the Deakin Fine Art Transportation warehouse near the Toronto waterfront. What they found inside was akin to the storeroom of a minor king. There were paintings by Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. Fifteen Henry Moores. A Kandinsky and dozens of others, including twenty-four Rothkos from the disputed estate. All told, Lloyd had about 1,750 artworks worth more than $12 million (or about $60 million today) in the warehouse. They were all seized and held as collateral in the New York case.
The lawyers, meanwhile, cornered Plutschow in Lloyd’s Toronto gallery—a partnership with Mira Godard, the grand doyenne of Canadian gallerists. They presented the terrified Liechtenstein resident with a court order preventing him from taking any art back with him to Europe. But the young fixer was free to go.
In the late winter of 2019, not long before the world shut down, I tried looking for the old Deakin warehouse, on the east side of Toronto, where I then lived. Deakin Fine Art Transportation went out of business sometime in the mid-1980s. The location of its once popular and briefly notorious warehouse wasn’t listed in the City of Toronto’s archival records. It had never been mentioned in the Toronto Star, the local newspaper of record, where I now work. The lawyers involved in the Toronto end of the caper were either unnamed in the coverage or long dead.
After several weeks of looking, I did reach one former Deakin executive by phone. Chris Birt had been working at the Marlborough-Godard gallery in 1975, when the Rothko raid occurred. (He joined Deakin several years later.) He was actually in the Yorkville gallery itself when the lawyers found Plutschow inside. (Seldes’ book records him making a rather panicked call to Godard in Montreal.) Birt and I spoke very briefly. The events of 1975 still had him on edge, forty-five years later.
I asked Birt if he knew where the Deakin warehouse had been. He suggested an area on Parliament Street, in Cabbagetown, where the writer Michael Ondaatje lives. He then hustled me off the phone and asked that I call him back for more details. He ignored my future calls.
Fourteen months later, having been waylaid by the pandemic, I started looking again. Seldes described the warehouse as having been “a large, low, cinderblock building” with huge, double-hung doors “near the docks of Lake Ontario.” There was a Deakin warehouse near the waterfront, on Lakeshore Boulevard, just metres north of the commercial pier. But according to records held by the National Gallery of Canada, and backed up by published references to a Deakin-linked, tequila-funded art contest, Deakin didn’t start sending invoices from that warehouse until December 1980, years after the Rothko raid.
Those same records, however, did point to another building, a low, mostly brick warehouse at the bottom of Pape Avenue, slightly further from the water and the pier, that today holds a photo studio and the stockroom for an art supply chain. When I visited, on an unreasonably windy day in March, I could see stacked boxes of watercolour crayons, pastels and pan sets through the windows.
Between June 1975 and December 1980, Dominion Gallery, the oldest private gallery in Canada, paid shipping invoices to Deakin at that address. It still has doors that are double-hung, though I can’t say I’d describe them as huge.
I can’t be 100% sure. But I believe that is where the Rothko raid took place. A security guard was smoking near a dumpster. The bricks on the south-facing wall were painted black. I had solved the mystery. But like many small mysteries, the solution didn’t offer me much. It was just a commercial building across from a movie studio. I had dragged my friend Jake, another reporter, out with me that day. He gamely scoured the first location with me, circling the building again and again. At the second, he mostly stayed in the car.
The Rothko estate eventually reclaimed more than six hundred paintings from Lloyd and Marlborough. Some, however, were lost for good, including Homage to Matisse, the only painting Rothko named in his mature period and the first painting Kate Rothko Prizel can ever remember seeing. “It’s so distinct among my father’s paintings that it stuck with me my entire life,” she said in an interview in 2016. “It’s the one painting I would really like to have; I grew up with it,” she said in another.
Rothko himself never sold Homage to Matisse. He named it after his hero, who died in 1954. “At some point, unfortunately, it was hanging on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Miami,” Hooper said.
Franz Plutschow is still alive and still active in the Lloyd family art business. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, as a director of a Bermuda-based holding company tied to Marlborough and Lloyd, who died in 1998. Max Levai, Lloyd’s grandnephew, sued Plutschow in fall of 2020, alleging, among other things, that the Marlborough Gallery, which still exists, and which Lloyd’s children still own, had stolen his Instagram account. As of March, Levai’s lawyers had not been able to track Plutschow down to serve him with the suit.
The Rothko Affair was the greatest scandal in the history of the New York art world, until a greater scandal came along, decades later in the form of the Knoedler forgery ring. The case was covered religiously at the time by the New York press, including in The Village Voice, by Seldes. She kept on the case for years after the original verdict and her book has come to be seen as the definitive text on the affair. But even at the time of publication, it was controversial. The art critic Hilton Kramer savaged Seldes in The New York Times, as did Robert Hughes—“the most famous art critic in the world”—in the New York Review of Books. “When functioning as a court reporter she does well,” Hughes wrote. “As a sociologue of the art world, she is quite inept.”
In 2010, after a chance run-in at the Museum of Modern Art, the artist David Levine began his own research into the Rothko Affair. Levine is the son of Morton Levine, one of Rothko’s maligned executors. In the younger Levine’s view, Seldes’ account is entertaining, but “wildly irresponsible.” It doesn’t reflect the reality he found sifting through thirty boxes of files in the Surrogate’s court. It doesn’t fully tell the story of Rothko, the real villain in Levine’s eyes—a depressed, alcoholic, monomaniacal narcissist who, having alienated his family, left his paintings in the hands of his friends instead, only to see those paintings destroy his friends one by one. “I think it’s awful that Rothko,” Levine wrote in a piece published in 2011, “one of the purest exponents of pure abstraction, had to take everyone else down with him in such a messily concrete way.”
After his initial ruling, Midonick banished Levine, Reis and Stamos and named Kate the new executor. He also found that the children were owed about half their father’s estate. But Rothko’s will had been clear. He wanted his art to go to a foundation. And even subtracting the children’s share, that still left almost a thousand works of art, including more than three hundred oil paintings, that had to go somewhere. That somewhere, eventually, became the new Mark Rothko Foundation.
In 1954, Donald Blinken, a young businessman who had recently returned to New York after several years in London, met Rothko at a cocktail party held by the art dealer André Emmerich. Blinken was a bit of an art dabbler at that point. “I had been collecting younger European artists,” he said. But he wasn’t a serious collector. Rothko, even then, was serious, and Blinken wanted in.
Blinken bought five paintings from Rothko over the next five years. It worked the same way every time. The painter wouldn’t let him buy just anything. Instead, Blinken had to go to the studio and choose from a pre-selected group of four or five. He did that about once a year until 1960, when he was priced out by Rothko’s growing fame.
In the 1970s, Blinken watched the drama over Rothko’s estate play out from a distance. He knew Rothko and his work. But he had no serious ties to any of the major players in the affair. In the insular world of New York art that made him something of an outlier.
Midonick ordered that a board be created for the new foundation. It included a member of the Phillips family (of the Phillips collection), the director of the Guggenheim, a retired MoMA curator, two artists, a Pulitzer (not a prize winner, an actual Pulitzer) and, as president, Donald Blinken. “[They] had to find people who were interested in Rothko or who had Rothkos but were not contaminated by the original Rothko case,” Blinken said decades later, when I spoke to him. That narrow group turned out to include him.
On a midsummer day in 1979, in a conference room in the offices of Breed, Abbott & Morgan, a Manhattan law firm, five people, including Kate Rothko Prizel and Donald Blinken, gathered to divide up one the great American art collections of all time. Before them, on the table, sat slides and inventory sheets, as well as coffee and sandwiches. Blinken, along with two others, represented the Mark Rothko Foundation. Rothko Prizel was there for the estate. For an entire week, working in lots of nine, the two sides divvied up the 2000 unsold works that Rothko left behind, including many that had since been reclaimed from Marlborough.
The draw worked something like an abstract expressionist fantasy draft. Kate went first, then the foundation, then back and forth another 1,556 times. (The Foundation took five out of every nine paintings under the terms of the settlement, so there were only seven picks per lot.) “At the end of the week we had agreed on everything,” Blinken said. “The children knew which pictures they were receiving. The Foundation knew which we had to give away.”
The Foundation directors had made a radical decision. Rather than sell the paintings to fund grants or set up a private Rothko museum, they planned to donate them, all of them, to galleries in the United States and around the world. “The big job we had was deciding which museums should get what,” Blinken said. Between 1979 and 1986, they canvassed galleries and museums, narrowing down the list of potential donees, then asking the finalists if they’d like a Rothko. “Most of them said yes,” Blinken said. “Oddly enough, the French didn’t seem to be interested.”
Starting in 1986, they gave them all away. The Met, in New York, got thirteen paintings. The Guggenheim took four. The Foundation gave one to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo—it was in storage when I was there in 2019—and one to the Dallas Museum of Art. All told, the Foundation gave Rothkos to twenty-nine American and six international galleries. To this day it remains one of the largest, most widespread gifts of art in the history of the United States. But the bulk of the collection, about nine hundred works, including two-hundred-and-ninety-five oil paintings, went to a single gallery in Washington D.C.
By the time I returned to the Rothko room at the National Gallery, Donald Trump had been president for almost three years. He was, at the time, in the middle of his first impeachment trial. My daughter, who hadn’t been born yet on my first visit, was now two-and-a-half. A few of the paintings had been switched out since the inauguration and the gallery was much more crowded than it had been on that day. But the impact of all those paintings, all together, in one place, hadn’t diminished with time.
There were ten of them in the room—nine large canvasses and one smaller one hung just inside the exit. The colours ranged from yellow and black, to green, orange and purple. But all the tension, in every block, in every picture, was in the borders, in the places where the colours met.
The Rothko Foundation chose the National Gallery in large part because it is a public institution. The paintings, which had come so close to being sold off in secret deals to private buyers, would instead belong to the public, forever. The gallery has a policy to never deaccession works. “Selling, or giving away, or destroying or whatever: we just don’t do it,” Hooper said.
Donald Blinken turned ninety-four the fall I spoke to him. He turned ninety-six this year. His son, Anthony, is now Joe Biden’s Secretary of State. I told him when we spoke that the story of the Mark Rothko Foundation struck me as highly unusual: a case where a wrong had been done—in secret, for the benefit of the rich—that was in turn righted. That doesn’t happen very often when money, or power, is at stake. “It’s a good observation and I think you’re absolutely right,” he replied. “I’m very proud of what we did.”
I spent another two days in D.C. after that first visit to the Rothko room. I watched Three Doors Down warm up for a set at the Lincoln Memorial. I stood outside the DeploraBall as alt-right royalty slinked past protestors to get inside. On the eve of the inauguration, I saw a young man marching near the Capitol, holding a sign that read: “THIS IS FUCKED UP.” As he walked, a Trump supporter in colonial cosplay jogged after him, trying to block the sign with his tricorn hat.
On the morning of the inauguration, I woke up before 5 a.m. I threw my shaving cream and toothpaste in the garbage to save time at the airport and left my little suitcase by my friend Julia’s front door. I spent the next several hours going through security—a series of long lines, through fences, into buildings and basements, then out again, through another fence and onto the Capitol steps. My flight back to Toronto was at 6:35 that night. Friends and family had flown in for the wedding and I had to be back in the city by nine. Maybe that’s why I missed so much of what was going on around me. Maybe I was distracted by the spectacle of it all. It was also all very cold and strange. (The core theme of the inaugural speech was American carnage.) But in any case, I missed it. It happened—the greatest scam in American history kicked off—and I didn’t have a clue.
‘This Was a Bonanza’
Ilya Marritz, a former senior reporter at WNYC Radio, and co-host of the Trump Inc. podcast, looks, in person, a bit like an actor playing a reporter on TV. When I met him in the WNYC offices in late 2019, he wore dark jeans with big cuffs and a tight plaid shirt. His stubble was just starting to go grey. In the months after Trump’s election, Marritz, like a lot of reporters, was still trying to get his bearings back; he was trying to find his way into what had become the biggest story in the world.
Marritz is a New York native. He’s been aware of Donald Trump his whole life. “I remember his divorce on the pages of the Post,” he said. But what surprised him, early on, was just how much he didn’t know about the new president’s world. “I realized and some of my colleagues realized, that there was so much about this man that we didn’t understand,” he said.
About a year after the election, Marritz and the WYNC team were still looking for roadmaps. They wanted to figure out where to look, to understand where corruption might be, if it was there at all. “We were kind of spit balling at the beginning, looking at, well, ‘what are the stories that we can do?’” Marritz said. “And very early on, I got interested in the inauguration.”
An hour into my conversation with art reporter Michael Miller, about Knoedler and the New York art world and his own life, we started talking about Donald Trump. In a way it was surprising it took us that long. It was November 2019. Trump was in the middle of his first impeachment. We were in midtown Manhattan, blocks from the Trump Tower, in the cafeteria at the headquarters of The New York Times, a paper that published one-hundred-and-eighty-one stories featuring Trump that month alone, or an average of more than six a day.
“There’s a lot of firsts there,” Miller said about the Trump presidency. “But it’s also, kind of, the first art collecting administration.” Trump was no connoisseur; he favoured reproductions and paintings of himself. But his cabinet was full of them. His moneymen were big art buyers. So were his daughter and her husband. “The fucking treasury secretary is a major collector,” Miller said. “His father owns a revered Upper East Side gallery that’s around the corner.”
Marritz and his colleagues soon figured out that there was something very strange about the Trump inauguration. By that point WNYC had teamed up with a guy named Robert Maguire, an expert on money in politics. What they noticed—and they weren’t alone in this—was that Trump’s inaugural committee had raised an enormous amount of money for what looked like a very small party. “People who are experienced in this area described it as very low key,” Marritz said. There were only three official balls. In 2009, Obama went to eleven. There were no A-list performers. Obama had Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. Trump drew The Piano Guys and DJ Ravidrums. (Even a Springsteen cover group, The B-Street Band, refused to perform.)
The budget for a such an event should have been modest. Instead, it was huge, like, historically huge. For the largest inauguration in American history, Obama raised about $53 million. Trump brought in more than double that, $107 million. “The two inaugural planners I had talked to, one Democratic, one Republican, were both flabbergasted and in agreement that it would not be possible to spend that amount of money, like actually impossible,” Marritz said.
It wasn’t just how much money, either. It was who was giving it. Unlike previous inaugurations, the Trump committee put no cap on individual or corporate donations. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $5 million. Coal miner Clifford Forrest gave $1 million. Billionaire Robert Mercer, the hedge fund tycoon who funded Cambridge Analytica, gave a million, too. “This was a bonanza,” Marritz said. “Anybody could give. All dollars were welcome. Just give, give, give, give, give.”
After all the lawsuits were settled, Kate and Christopher Rothko owned a collection of their father’s art, from every period of his career, far too vast for the two of them to ever display. In the decades since, the Rothko heirs have loaned paintings out to exhibitions and retrospectives. They’ve hung some in their own homes, in Washington and New York. And in 2004, they sold a trove of paintings to J. Ezra Merkin, a Manhattan money manager who was then putting together one of the largest private collections of Rothkos in the world.
Merkin’s new Rothkos included studies for the Seagram’s murals and for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Merkin hung them in his ten-figure co-op at 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan, around the corner from the old Knoedler building and less than a mile from the luxury apartment tower where Harry Macklowe hung a forty-two foot picture of his new wife after finalizing his divorce from Linda.
740 Park has been called “The World’s Richest Apartment Building.” Potential owners need $100 million in liquid assets just to apply to live there. Stephen Schwarzman, a hedge fund billionaire and art collector who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration, lived there. Steven Mnuchin, a long-time Goldman Sachs executive and the son of gallery owner Bob Mnuchin, did too. In the years after the financial crisis, Mnuchin served as the head of OneWest Bank. Under his leadership, in just six years, OneWest carried out 36,000 foreclosures in California alone. In 2017, Trump named him secretary of the treasury.
As for Ezra Merkin, he lost his Rothkos, which he never really paid for, in 2009. For years, it turned out, he had been passing on his clients’ money to Bernie Madoff to invest. When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed, Merkin’s clients, which included several large charities, lost billions. Merkin never admitted any fault in the Madoff scheme. He kept his co-op at 740 Park (although it was badly damaged in a sauna fire in 2016.) But as part of the fallout, the New York Attorney General forced him to sell his entire art collection, for $310 million. A mystery bidder bought the Rothkos. For years, as far as the art world was concerned, they just disappeared.
Thirteen months after the inauguration, WNYC launched a podcast series dedicated to the business history
and dealings of the new president. They called it: “Trump Inc.” In the early weeks, the show covered corruption at the Trump Taj Mahal, Jared Kushner’s real estate empire and the president’s financial ties to
Russia. But Marritz remained focussed on the president’s first day: “I just started calling every name that I could find connected with the inauguration, every single one,” he said. “I got on LinkedIn. I reached out everywhere.”
There were three big questions at that point: Where had all the money gone, who had given it, and why. The answer to the third question was in some ways the easiest to find. People went to the inauguration or gave money to the inaugural committee, or helped organize inaugural events because they wanted something from Donald Trump. “Just the on-the-books donors that we know about is a perfect guide to who has sought influence in the Trump presidency,” Marritz said.
But it wasn’t just the donors. Elliott Broidy, the vice-chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, used the event to drum up business for his own companies. He offered inaugural tickets to two senior Angolan politicians in a letter that also included a contract he asked them to sign. He gave out invites to a Congolese strongman and a politician once dubbed the “Romanian Darth Vader,” all part of a plan to, according to The New York Times, solicit up to $266 million in foreign defence intelligence contracts. “Those kinds of people were showing up because nobody was vetting them,” Marritz said. “There were no constraints put on this. It was an open for business inauguration.”
In the summer of 2006, Steve Wynn, a casino owner and long-time friend of Donald Trump’s, agreed to sell Picasso’s Le Rêve, a famous painting of the artist’s young mistress, to the hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen for $139 million. A decade later, Wynn would help organize the Trump inauguration. He served on the fundraising committee. He had “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers”—his personal team of Vegas dancers—flown in to perform. He insisted, according to documents released by a special prosecutor, that “40 Hour Week,” by Alabama, be played at one party.
Cohen, who donated $1 million to the inauguration, is himself one of the world’s leading collectors of art. His trove includes works by Pollock, de Kooning, and Andy Warhol. He owns Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a thirteen-foot preserved tiger shark swimming in a display case of formaldehyde. Cohen, who founded S.A.C. Capital, is worth an estimated $14 billion. The New Yorker once described him as “a symbol of Wall Street malfeasance.” In 2013, his former firm paid a $1.8 billion fine to settle charges of insider trading. One of his associates was sentenced to nine years in prison. Cohen now owns the New York Mets.
In 2006, however, Cohen’s purchase of Le Rêve fell through. The night before the sale, Wynn put his elbow through the canvas while showing it to some friends.
For months, Marritz had little to show for his focus on the inauguration. He knew there was something there. That much was obvious. “There was like $40 million or so that was unaccounted for,” he said. But he couldn’t figure out what that something was or where all that money had gone. Still, Marritz didn’t give up. He felt like he was close to something big. “I just knew it,” he said. “I mean, I just fucking knew. I still know it. There is still more to be understood.”
What happened, in the end, is what happens in almost every big breakthrough in journalism. After endless calls and ignored emails, someone told Marritz something he didn’t know. “I can’t tell you very much about my reporting breakthrough except to say that eventually people started sharing documents with me,” he said. Those documents pointed him, and the WNYC reporting team, to at least two seismic facts about the inauguration. One was that the Trump International Hotel in Washington, a luxury property right between the White House and the National Gallery, got paid, a lot, from inaugural funds. The other, Marritz said, was that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, had known about it.
In the late months of 2016, not long before the inauguration, Trump’s advisors and would-be members of his cabinet began compiling and submitting financial disclosure forms to the Office of Government Ethics. Disclosures are always newsworthy when they emerge. It’s important to know who owns what in any government. But the Trump disclosures were eye-popping on a different scale.
In a way unmatched in American history, Trump’s cabinet members and close advisors were rich, phenomenally so. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, needed fifty-seven pages to detail his assets. (A typical disclosure is twelve pages or less.) He listed about $700 million in stocks, trusts, and property. He cited an art collection, heavy on René Magritte, valued at between $50 and $150 million.
Ross, in other words, was very wealthy. But it turned out he wasn’t quite as wealthy as he had often claimed. In 2017, disclosures in hand, Forbes pulled Ross from its annual billionaires list. Ross, the magazine concluded, had invented an extra $2 billion in net worth. “That money never existed,” senior editor Dan Alexander wrote. “It seems clear that Ross lied to us.”
Mnuchin, Trump’s pick for the treasury, had the opposite problem. His disclosures revealed that he was about ten times wealthier than public projections had assumed. In total, Mnuchin disclosed about $400 million in assets, including a stake in a $14.7 million de Kooning. (Say what you will about Mnuchin, but it’s hard to argue with his taste in art. After he was installed in cabinet, he borrowed five Rothkos from the National Gallery to decorate his office.)
Like Mnuchin, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner initially failed to disclose the extent of their art collection. It was only in the summer of 2017, on an amended form, that the couple revealed they owned between $5 and $25 million worth of contemporary art. That revelation, at least, came as no surprise to those in the New York art world. Ivanka Trump had been a mainstay in the gallery party circuit before her father became president. Her Instagram account often showed her in the family’s Manhattan apartment, posing before works by artists like Alex Israel, David Ostrowski and Alex Da Corte. “Dear @ivankatrump,” Da Corte wrote when saw the picture, “please get my work off your walls I am embarrassed to be seen with you.”
There was one inconvenient fact that loomed over every part of the preparations for the 58th Presidential Inauguration: Donald Trump and his advisors had not expected to win the election. The Trump team hadn’t taken the job of preparing for the presidency seriously. And what work was done, under the direction of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was all thrown out after the votes came in. “That’s really late in the game to start planning the transition,” said Marritz. “Similarly with the inauguration, it’s always a sprint, but it seemed to come together even more haphazardly than is normal.”
Trump put real estate investor Thomas J. Barrack, who was later charged with conspiring to act as an agent of the United Arab Emirates while advising Trump, in charge of the festivities. Wynn, who stepped down from his own company in 2018 after being accused of serial sexual abuse, played an active role in the planning, as did Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager. (Gates later admitted it “was possible” he had stolen money from the planning fund; he was convicted of lying under oath and conspiring against the United States in 2019.) But the main job of actually pulling the party together went to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a veteran New York event planner and long-time friend of Melania Trump’s.
Winston Wolkoff would later emerge as a key player in the inauguration drama. That was in part because she kept meticulous records, but it was also because she spoke about the event to Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer, on the phone. Cohen, who was convicted of what a judge called “a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” in 2018, secretly recorded those calls. And when he was arrested, investigators seized the tapes and used them to launch an investigation into the inaugural committee.
Winston Wolkoff had made the mistake of assuming that, for all its public dysfunction, the Trump world would still operate something like a credible, business-oriented operation. What she found instead was a kind of chaos of disorganized grift. “There was all of this money just pouring in everywhere,” Maguire said.
Gates, Winston Wolkoff told Cohen, had asked vendors if they’d take money directly from donors, apparently to hide how much was coming in and from whom. Another consultant later admitted to using so-called “straw donors” to hide illegal contributions, likely from overseas.
But the most telling story to emerge from Winston Wolkoff’s records was the about the Trumps themselves and their business interests. At some point early in the process, it was made clear to the organizers that the Trump Hotel had to be a venue, Marritz said. And when it came time to plan official inaugural events, the Trump was the only hotel the committee considered.
That in itself was iffy enough. Trump still owned his company. When the Trump hotel made money, he made money. And everybody knew that. What was worse, though, was that the prices the hotel quoted were wildly out of touch with what other venues wanted.
The Trump initially asked the committee for $3.6 million to reserve all event space in the hotel for eight days in and around the inauguration. That worked out to $450,000 a day, a number so inflated and so far beyond the hotel’s internal pricing scheme that even Gates balked. (Another non-profit booked a ballroom for $5000 that week. Other hotels were offering them up for free.) Gates wrote to Ivanka Trump and asked her to intervene. A Trump Hotel official got back to Gates, said he had “spoken to Ivanka about inauguration pricing,” and offered to negotiate. After going back and forth, the hotel presented the committee a new rate: Four days in the Presidential Ballroom for $175,000 a day plus an additional $200,000 on food, and a $300,000 inaugural party for the Trump kids.
To Winston Wolkoff all of this seemed not just outlandish, but potentially embarrassing. In an email first revealed by Marritz and a team at ProPublica, she warned the rest of the inaugural committee about her concerns. “These are events in PE’s [the President-elect] honor at his hotel and one of them is with and for family and close friends,” she wrote. “Please take into consideration that when this is audited it will become public knowledge.”
The committee went ahead with the buy.
Trump Inc. and ProPublica first published excerpts from Winston’s Wolkoff’s emails on December 14, 2018. Above the ProPublica story, co-written by reporter Justin Elliott, editors placed a photo of Trump speaking on inauguration day. You can see me in that picture. I’m sitting in the front row beneath the dais, near the far end. Frank Spotorno, the elevator design king of Long Island, was next to me. His friend Darren Aquino, a personal chef, actor and advocate turned Republican candidate, sat one seat over to the right. (In 2020, Aquino demanded a recount after finishing eighth in a Florida primary.)
In the weeks before and after the ceremony, the big story about the inauguration wasn’t who was there, it was about who wasn’t. The crowd was modest. Tickets weren’t exactly scarce. I applied for credentials a week before the event. They sat me in a VIP zone. Even Spotorno had no idea how he ended up in the front row. “The CFO, the CEO (of the Trump Organization), they were all at the back,” he told me when I met him for a drink, years later at the Trump Hotel in New York. “Newt Gingrich, he was standing up, maybe ten-to-twelve aisles back…but we were sitting down. It was an awesome day.”
But all of that, to Marritz—the crowd size, the speech, the D-list VIPs—was a distraction. It foreshadowed a pattern that would play out again and again in the Trump presidency. “Some controversy bubbles up, everybody runs there and checks it out,” Marritz said. And in the process, they miss what’s really going on: “How Trump does business. And the fact that Trump expects to be paid.”
In January 2020, the Attorney General for the District of Columbia sued the Trump inaugural committee, the Trump organization and the Trump International Hotel alleging that the three entities had conspired to waste the non-profit committee’s funds. In December 2020, as her father was ginning up the outrage that would lead to the Capitol riots, Ivanka Trump was deposed, behind closed doors, in the case. In New York, prosecutors launched a separate criminal investigation into the inauguration in late 2018. In February 2021, Imaad Zuberi, a California venture capitalist and lobbyist, was sentenced to twelve years in prison as part of that probe. Zuberi had been working, secretly, for, among others, the Sri Lankan government. He promised to use political donations to influence American policy. He also donated almost a million dollars to the inaugural fund.
In a separate case, Broidy, Trump’s inaugural vice chair, pleaded guilty to illegal lobbying in late 2020. Like Zuberi, Broidy took millions to secretly press the Trump administration after helping Trump raise millions for his campaign. Broidy, who Rolling Stone once dubbed “Washington’s ultimate swamp creature,” was forced to forfeit more than $6 million. He was facing up to five years in prison. But in Trump’s last hours in office, four years to the day after the inauguration, he issued Broidy a full pardon.
The conviction, though, only scratched the surface of Broidy’s strange dealings during the Trump years. He was also involved in a plan to tilt American foreign policy away from Qatar. Broidy would later accuse Qatari agents of leaking damaging emails to discredit him, including one that revealed he once agreed to pay a Playboy Playmate $1.6 million to cover up their affair. (Like Trump, Broidy used Cohen as a go-between to arrange his payoff).
Broidy’s well-paid campaign against Qatar kicked off not long after the ruling family of the oil-rich gulf state emerged as perhaps the dominant force in the global art world. In 2007, the Al Thani family paid almost $73 million for David Rockefeller’s prized Rothko, an unusual canvas of yellow over pink. The sale almost quadrupled the existing auction record for a Rothko which had been set, in 2005, by Homage to Matisse. In 2011, The Art Newspaper revealed that the Al Thanis were also the buyers of the mystery Rothkos from J. Ezra Merkin’s collection.
In 2020, ARTnews named two members of the Al Thani family to its annual list of the most important art collectors in the world. At least seven top inaugural donors also made that list. Steve Cohen, who gave $1 million and bought Wynn’s patched up Picasso, makes it every year. So does Wynn. Hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin owns a $300 million de Kooning. He gave $100,000 to the Trump inauguration party fund. Fund manager Bruce Berkowitz, who for years wanted to build his own private gallery in Miami, donated $125,000. Henry Kravis, the barbarian in the business classic Barbarians at the Gate, and the owner of a Monet and a Renoir, gave $1 million. So did Charles Schwab, who owns a Pollock and a Bacon.
Frank Fertitta III, a casino magnate who helped build the Ultimate Fighting Championship with his brother Lorenzo, gave the committee $207,000. The Fertittas are serious art collectors. When they bought the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, they commissioned Damien Hirst to decorate the club. Among other works, Hirst built a divided triptych shark tank to stand above and behind the bar. He also designed a suite in the hotel that rented out for $100,000 a night. It came complete with two preserved sharks in a single tank.
In 2008, Fertitta, still at that point the co-owner of the UFC, paid $7.2 million for an orange, red and blue Rothko. He bought the painting through an agent, on the advice of Swiss art historian Oliver Wick. It was only in 2013, after reading a story in The Art Newspaper, that Fertitta discovered the painting was a Knoedler fraud.
For Marritz, the story of the Trump Hotel at the inauguration was the story of the Trump presidency. It wasn’t about policy, not really. Trump never really believed in anything, except money and himself. And he was never particularly concerned about where that money came from or who was funneling it to him. “Really, the opening act in all of that,” Marritz said, “was the inauguration itself.”
On the day I met Miller, in New York, Trump had just been ordered to pay a $2 million civil settlement stemming from a lawsuit that accused him of exploiting his own charity during the campaign. That suit was tied to a fundraising event in Des Moines, Iowa, in January 2016. I was there that night. It was the first time I ever saw Trump live. The experience was a bit like being drawn into a big top by a carnival barker, only to find the barker himself on stage, inside, yelling about the greatness of barking.
But the crowd, as they always did, loved it. I have a photo from that night saved on my phone. I took it from the side balcony, moments after Trump left the stage, as the audience swarmed toward him. In the centre balcony, you can see a man pitching over the railing, his body bent past ninety degrees. In the blur of movement below, there are red hats and upraised fists and in one corner the starburst glare of a professional flash.
There are parallels, Miller believes, between the Knoedler case, the Rothko story, and the great, long scam of the Trump years. They all exposed things as they already were. “You very rarely in a luxury market like the art world, or high-end real estate—which is the world of the Trumps—see any kind of transparency,” he said. None of this was new, in other words. It wasn’t novel. It was just out there, briefly, for everyone to see.
It will sound like pathetic fallacy, but it’s true: When Trump spoke on inauguration day, the rain began to fall. Fat drops in cold air, they caused a collective sudden rustling of ponchos being unfurled. From below, where I sat, it sounded like a thousand pigeons fluttering their wings to shake off the rain.
As Trump spoke, a photographer for CNN shot a massive, megapixel picture of the crowd. Zoom in and you can see me in the shot. My head’s down. I’m looking at my notes. I watched Trump walk out from the Capitol. I saw him pause behind the bulletproof glass, saw him clench his hands and do his odd little victory shake. But when he reached the podium, when he finally took the oath, when his four years officially began, he slipped from view. From the front row, you couldn’t see him. That was fake, too.
Coda: ‘Another Poem’
At the end of my conversation with Christopher Rothko in New York, as we were gathering our things, I asked him if there was anything we hadn’t talked about, anything more he wanted to say. Rothko paused and thought; he seemed ready to move on, then something struck him: “I want to talk,” he said, “about the painting at the AGO.”
The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, acquired a Rothko directly from the artist’s studio in 1962. The painting was a gift from the Women’s Committee Fund, a volunteer organization that raised money at the time to buy and give away work. “I think that is easily one of the twenty greatest Rothkos ever painted,” Christopher told me. “Maybe higher than that. And I’ve been to the AGO four times and it has never been on display.”
When I came back to Toronto that fall, I wrote a newspaper story about the AGO Rothko, which had been in storage or on loan at that point for more than a decade. “I don’t get it,” Christopher told me. “It’s not like they have other Rothkos hanging. It’s not like they are hanging exclusively Canadian art…So this is a plea to get that painting out of storage—or if not, I’ll swap with them.”
He laughed then. But he wasn’t joking. Not really. Even all these years after the Rothko Affair, Christopher still owns more Rothkos than he could ever hang.
When I wrote my story, the gallery told me they planned to put the canvas up sometime in 2020. But then 2020 came and everything fell away. The AGO closed in March when the pandemic arrived in Toronto. It reopened that summer and then closed again as cases climbed before Christmas. In February 2021, I reached out to the gallery again. I needed an ending. But it was more than that. I wanted to see another painting. (“I wished for what I always wished for,” Louise Glück wrote. “I wished for another poem.”)
The good news was, the painting was up, finally. But the gallery wasn’t open, not yet. I tried again in March. And for a brief window I thought I might get in. Twenty minutes. No photos. Just me. But then another surge and another lockdown. I asked again in May. And then July. And then the email came. “It breaks my heart to tell you this,” the gallery’s publicist wrote to me. “But although the AGO is hoping to re-open on July 21 (and we’d be delighted to have you in), the Rothko is coming down to make way for the Matthew Wong exhibition.”
The AGO suffers from abundance; it owns far more paintings than it can ever display. And there are deals involved with wealthy donors that govern what can be moved and when.
The Rothko offers an additional issue: geometry. The canvas, almost eight feet by seven-and-a-half feet, is too large to share space. It can’t be crowded in. It needs a dedicated wall, and there aren’t that many walls in the AGO that are large enough. That the gallery finally found space for it, that it made room, that the Rothko hung there for a half a pandemic year only to come down again before anyone other than gallery staff could see it, felt like its own kind of art: a performance of absence in a year when so many things were lost.
Maybe that’s why I kept trying, why I couldn’t let the Rothko go. It felt like a string tied through a funhouse mirror to a previous world. In late October, with the anniversary of Trump’s defeat looming, I tried one last ploy. I asked Christopher Rothko to intercede, and he agreed. And that’s how, on a late October day, I came to be standing one more time before the real thing.
I’m not allowed to say where I saw the Rothko, other than to say that it was in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a building next to a playground that my daughter, now four, loves to climb and slide and swing across. But it was a strange enough thing in the end. The light was off—too stark and uneven. And as I stared, a modern art curator jiggled a silver-sneakered foot, seemingly anxious to get on with his day.
My younger friends will sometimes ask me what fatherhood feels like. I’m never quite sure how to put it into words. It’s an ache in places I never knew were there, a feeling with fuzzy edges and a scarlet core where the love for everything that is washes up against the fear and the mystery of what may be. I felt a refraction of all that as I looked at the Rothko. I stared for so long that when I finally left and closed my eyes, I could see the afterglow of the canvas against my eyelids: a white haze and a brown float, and everything anchored in red—perfect smear.