Paul Allen’s Collection Is The Most Expensive Ever To Be Auctioned, But There’s Even More Where It Came From
The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what is really current on the art market.
The deployment of Paul Allen’s billion-dollar art collection – the highest pre-sale estimate in auction history – was handled with the utmost control. A few batches were initially released to cause a stir. Then silence. Then a few more, but not too many. The proximity strategy of the vest suits the intensely private nature of the late boss.
Now, less than two weeks away from the coveted November 9 evening auction, more than 150 lots are finally online. They portray the late Microsoft co-founder, who died of lymphoma in 2018, as a maverick collector constantly on the lookout for innovative artists.
But there is much more to the history of the Allen collection, including what is not offered by Christie’s and how key advisors and friends helped shape it.
I started thinking about the untold story very early on. In the the wall street journal, Kelly Crow’s initial announcement of the collection was illustrated with a photo of Allen in front of a Rothko light board. It turns out that the work, yellow on purple (1956), will not be in the Christie’s sale.
The treasure trove of paintings and sculptures that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has collected could top $1 billion when auctioned at Christie’s this fall https://t.co/4qFjufuh3C
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) August 26, 2022
What else was excluded, I wondered? And why? Representatives of Vulcan, Allen’s family office, declined to comment or offer details on the future of the excluded works and whether they will be donated to an institution or, potentially, curated for a museum established by the estate.
The actual size of Allen’s art collection remains unknown. His works adorned the walls of multiple residences, private boats and offices, and traveled the world on loan to museums. But only a handful of high-end paintings absent from Christie’s could add to another one $500 million, according to dealers. They range from the great Roy Lichtensteins to the works of Gerhard Richter and David Hockney.
“Maybe they didn’t want to put everything on the table,” wonders a market player. “It’s already a billion for a selection of works. This will suck a lot of air out of the market.
More than the eye can discern
Art was just one of Allen’s collecting passions. Curious, consummate, and mega-rich, he collected enthusiastically, purchasing enough vintage computers, historic airplanes, and sci-fi memorabilia to fill three separate museums in Seattle. His hiking complex in the city also had a private gallery, according to David Nash, former head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art department, who advised Allen on major art purchases for nearly a decade, beginning in 1997.
“I knew Paul was considering whether to make a museum out of it,” Nash said. “In the end he decided he wouldn’t because he was the opposite of conceited. He was very private. For quite a long time in the beginning he bought these paintings for his private enjoyment. This is not only much later that he arranged to have them displayed in public.(Proceeds from the Christie’s sale will benefit charitable causes Allen supported during his life, although Vulcan declined to specify which .)
Two traveling public exhibitions of Allen’s collection—”Double Take: From Monet to Lichtenstein” in 2006 and “SSee Nature: Landscape Masterpieces from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection » in 2016 – left a record of some works that are not for sale.
The visual anchor of “Seeing Nature” was that of Monet Water Lily Pond (1919), a beautifully atmospheric and frequently reproduced painting not offered. It was one of Allen’s first major art acquisitions, reaching $12.1 million at Christie’s in 1992, the best result for the artist that year, according to Artnet Price Database.
Two other important Monet paintings that Allen owned are also missing: one of haystacks and the other of Rouen Cathedral, according to exhibition listings. (A haystack painting holds the auction record of $110.7 million for Monet.)
The year 1992, when Allen started buying art seriously, was an opportune time to start collecting. The art market was on its knees after the collapse of the stock market, the American invasion of Kuwait and the collapse of the Japanese economy. Water Lily Pond was one of several works of art Allen acquired in November 1992, according to Nash.
“We came to an agreement and I was his consultant, dealer, agent,” Nash said in a phone interview this week. “It was very exciting to buy paintings for him. He was a great enthusiast. He had a very good eye and learned quickly.
Allen met Nash through the billionaire’s friend, music mogul and art collector David Geffen, who was friends with Nash’s wife, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, then head of the art department of post-war Sotheby’s. She would later advise Allen on the acquisition of works including that of Lucian Freud Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), which he bought for $5.8 million in 1998 at Sotheby’s. (Christie’s estimated it at over $75 million.)
In the mid-1990s, Geffen sold Allen two paintings by Roy Lichtenstein: The kiss (1962), which featured in the artist’s first solo at the Castelli Gallery in 1962, and Ok Hot Shot, Ok (1963), said Nash. Neither is in the Christie’s sale.
At the time Allen bought them, auction prices for the pop artist were over $6 million. But if it were to be offered today, The kiss may well surpass Lichtenstein’s auction record of $95 million, according to dealer Barbara Bertozzi Castelli.
It takes a village
In 1998, Аllen hired Pablo Schugurensky as director of art collections at Vulcan. During his tenure, which lasted until 2005, Schugurensky and Nash tracked down the most important works on the market and verified their provenance.
“Between us, we’ve managed to get some wonderful paintings for Paul,” Nash said, including by Georges Seurat The Poseuses, Together (Small version) (1888) and a rarely seen Van Gogh landscape, Orchard with cypresses (1888), both purchased privately and now valued at over $100 million each. He also negotiated the acquisition of Kandinsky’s Tiefe Brown from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2000.
In the years since, the Allen Family Collection, which operates under the Vulcan umbrella, has become a well-oiled machine with a team of more than a dozen experts overseeing loans, storage, and more.
Nash also often bid for Allen at auction. A key purchase was Paul Cézanne’s landscape, Sainte-Victoire mountain (1888-1890), also estimated at over $120 million. It went on sale at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg in May 2001, for $38.5 million as part of the collection of German art dealer Heinz Berggruen.
Nash was puzzled to see no mention of her role in Christie’s lavish 560-page catalog. “I guess they have their reasons,” he said. Christie’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Was Allen a competitive buyer?
“He was willing to go as far as he thought was reasonable,” Nash said. Very early on, he outbid a few works, including a deceased “wonderful” Picasso.
Nash and Mitchell-Innes were frequent guests at Allen’s extravagant parties. Allen once chartered two private jets to ferry guests to the south of France for a party attended by around 200 people, including Robin Williams and Bill Murray. Another time, friends were invited to sail from Tallinn, Estonia, to St. Petersburg, Russia, on a rented cruise ship that docked opposite the Winter Palace, Nash recalled.
A year in Venice, a city Allen loved and collected many depictions of, the billionaire rented a palace on the Grand Canal, hosting a masquerade ball and performing for his guests with Carlos Santana.
“He was like a different person on stage,” Nash said. “We had a lot of fun. He was a very good host. And a very good customer.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive breaking news, revealing interviews and incisive reviews that move the conversation forward.