The Art Collection of Mary and John Pappajohn Heads to the Auction Block

The Iowa philanthropists and art collectors once donated $30 million of artwork to create a sculpture park in Des Moines.

You're going where? Des Moines
The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines, Iowa. The Washington Post via Getty

From the beginning, art was at the core of Iowa philanthropists Mary and John Pappajohn’s relationship. In 1961, the then-newlyweds adorned their walls with artwork before even acquiring furniture and purchased their first work, a $50 print by Keith Achepohl, just one month after saying ‘I do.’ Over time, Mary and John, who died in 2022 and 2023 respectively, built an exceptional art collection—their first major acquisition was a Rothko. Several notable pieces from the couple’s collection are now headed for Christie's mid-May spring sales, including monumental contemporary pieces by Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Agnes Martin, Henry Moore, Ad Reinhardt and others.

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“Mary and John Pappajohn collected with deep passion and together created a collection richly reflective of post-war and contemporary art in America,” said Johanna Flaum, Christie’s vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art, in a statement. “Their singular vision resulted in a best in-class collection that was far ahead of its time.”

Grey painting depicting a number 9 cutout
Jasper Johns, 0 through 9, (1961). Courtesy Christie's

Leading the sales is 0 through 9, a sculp-metal painting created by Johns in 1961 that subverts the traditional sequencing of numerical symbols by layering them on top of each other. Part of the Number paintings the artist began to pursue in the mid-1950s, the work was exhibited at his first-ever European show at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris. It is expected to realize between $5 million and $7 million.

Painting with pale blue and yellow horizontal stripes
Agnes Martin, Untitled #7, (1985). Courtesy Christie's

Meanwhile, Martin’s Untitled #7, a 1996 painting that combines concepts of abstract expressionism and minimalism, is expected to fetch between $3 million and $5 million. Christie’s is also selling Nauman’s 1985 Hanged Man, which puts a neon spin on the children’s word guessing game and has an estimate of $4 million to $6 million.

Who were Mary and John Pappajohn?

The major works going to auction represent just a small selection of the art amassed by the Pappajohns, whose vast collection included pieces by Richard Serra and Willem de Kooning. Their artistic passions ran deep—Mary studied art history at the University of Minnesota, while John fell in love with art after taking a course at the University of Iowa. “I had never been to a museum in my life, so what the hell did I know. But I liked the pictures,” he told the Des Moines Register. John, who would go on to found the venture capital fund Pappajohn Capital Resources and financial consulting firm Equity Dynamics, took year-long turns attending the university with his two brothers while they tended to the family store.

The couple particularly loved sculpture. The large-scale pieces on their lawn became into a local attraction, and in 2009, they decided to donate sixteen sculptures valued at $30 million, including one of Louise Bourgeois’s spiders and a bronze rabbit by Barry Flanagan, to create a sculpture garden park in Des Moines. Mary and John were also known as major patrons of education, giving some $35 million to establish entrepreneurial centers at five universities and colleges across Iowa and funding a $26 million biomedical building at the University of Iowa.

Highlights from the Pappajohn collection will be offered in Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sales on May 14 and 20th Century Evening Sales on May 16 with a total estimate in excess of $15 million. Additional works from the couple’s collection will be sold in subsequent day sales.

The Art Collection of Mary and John Pappajohn Heads to the Auction Block