Pinault's Big Sale

At Christie's contemporary art sale in New York last month, the top lot was a huge mural painting by Mark Rothko that the auction house hailed as a "masterwork" and "of particular importance." When the bidding was over, No. 9 (White and Black on Wine) had sold for $16.4 million — a record for a Rothko at auction, as Christie's was quick to point out.

What Christie's didn't trumpet was the identity of the seller: François Pinault, the self-made French billionaire whose holdings happen to include Christie's itself. The Rothko was in good company. Lot 39 at the...

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