David N. Pincus, the Philadelphia clothing manufacturer and philanthropist, joked a few years ago about the soaring value of the art that he and his wife, Geraldine, had collected over the years.

"You know, I bought and sold things for some wild numbers," said Pincus, who died in December at age 85.

Wild, indeed.

An auction of some of the Pincus collection last week at Christie's in New York fetched $180 million.

A 1961 painting by Mark Rothko sold for $77.5 million to an anonymous bidder — nearly $87 million with the buyer's commission, a record for a postwar work, Christie's says.About 50 bids were cast in the six-minute auction Tuesday night for the work titled Orange, Red, Yellow.

"When it started to get into those crazy numbers, we just started to cry," said Leslie Pincus-Elliott, his daughter, who attended with her sister, Wendy Pincus. "It's pretty powerful, pretty surreal."

Much of the proceeds of the sale of 38 works will go to the Pincus Family Foundation to carry out the philanthropy of Pincus and his wife, who lives in Wynnewood. The foundation supports causes including pediatric AIDS initiatives, museums, and hospitals.

"Talk about a legacy here," said Pincus-Elliott. "We've got a lot of money here to spend. We're going to do some great work in his honor with that money. I think that all he cared about in the end was doing right by everybody."

Pincus, chairman of Pincus Bros.-Maxwell, a Philadelphia menswear maker that closed in 2004, and his wife collected the works over the course of their 50-year marriage.

"They had a very keen sense of building a collection with great, great art and the names of the time," Laura Paulson, deputy chairwoman of Christie's, said in a video promoting the sale. She has known the Pincuses for 30 years.

Christie's had estimated that the auction would generate $100 million. In addition to the Rothko, the other lots included works by Nan Goldin, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Jeff Wall, and Cindy Sherman.

In a 2009 interview, Pincus said he bought works that moved him. "I wasn't thinking of investing," he said.

But he recognized that the value of some works had appreciated in the international art market, and he viewed the stratospheric prices as a way to fund the charities that mattered to him — those that protected the downtrodden, especially children.

"The vast fortune that inexplicably arose from those paintings on canvas is now freed to accomplish what he wanted," said Stephen W. Nicholas, a pediatrician and associate dean at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

"All that fortune is freed up to fund the great, the good, the important."

During his lifetime, Pincus gave away many works to institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns several of his Andy Warhol donations. A year before he died, Pincus donated a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, Giant Three-Way Plug, Scale A, to the Art Museum in honor of Anne d'Harnoncourt, its late director.

He sold other works to pay down costs of closing the family clothing business.

Three of the most valuable works auctioned last week had been on loan to the Art Museum for the last decade — the Rothko, Newman's Onement V, and Pollock's No. 28.

The paintings sold to anonymous buyers for $132 million.

The Pincus family retains a large number of works. Others are promised to various institutions.

Pincus-Elliott said she and her siblings grew up with the artworks. Her mother and her brother, Nathan, could not attend the auction Tuesday and Wednesday.

"We were all very attached to those paintings," she said. "There was no question it was bittersweet. It was so bittersweet my mom and my brother couldn't even attend the auction. They were just too emotional about it."

Geraldine Pincus told the New York Times in March that the decision to hold the auction had been difficult. "Our foundation needs money,'" she explained.

Pincus-Elliott said the foundation's board of directors would meet in the coming months to set its course.

"Right now it's so overwhelming," she said. "I don't even think any of us have processed this. We knew we were going to do well. I just didn't think this well. This is his legacy."

During the auction, she wondered about the anonymous buyers bidding by telephone.

"They're just kooky numbers," she said. "David always knew it. 'It's a game,' he said. 'It's a game.'

"Even though he was a genius in the way he saw art, he's going to do good with it, and there's nothing more poetic in my mind."

Contact Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @Maykuth

For Christie's promotional video of the Pincus Collection: http://bit.ly/K2uJ3z

For a video of the record-setting Tuesday auction for Mark Rothko's "Orange, Red, Yellow": http://bit.ly/KNvpAM

The Inquirer's 2009 profile of David Pincus is available at www.philly.com/pincus