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Barron’s: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s art collection sells for an unprecedented $1.5 billion


The unprecedented $1.5 billion sale of the late Microsoft

co-founder Paul Allen’s masterpiece collection Wednesday evening at Christie’s — followed by strong results for the sale of 95 more works on Thursday — is giving a boost of adrenaline to the art market. 

The results appear to point to continued strength for art sales, although they also reflect the museum-level quality of Allen’s collection, and the fact the works were purchased by the billionaire, who was said to reach for the highest-quality examples from the world’s top artists stretching back centuries. 

From the archives (October 2018): Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen dies at 65

“The works were just extraordinary,” says Rachel Rosan, a veteran of the auction world who is now a senior director of fine art in New York at global art advisory firm Gurr Johns. “It was a special collection and special sale. It was a really great moment for the art world.”

Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble — a canvas measuring just 15½ inches by 19¾ inches — which sold for $149.2 million in the evening’s top sale, “was one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever stood in front of,” Rosan says. 

The final total for just the first of two parts of the collection alone represented the “most valuable private-collection sale of all time,” according to Christie’s, with five works selling for more than $100 million, achieving world auction records for Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Gustav Klimt. All proceeds from the sale are going to philanthropic causes championed by Allen during his lifetime. 

The evening auction, which was 100% sold, also set 20 world records for one stellar piece after another representing the very best examples of some of the world’s most renowned artists. Works by Lucian Freud, Jasper Johns, Paul Signac, Max Ernst, and Andrew Wyeth all achieved new auction records for these artists.

Of the 60 works in the evening sale, 58.3% sold above their presale estimates according to the hammer price (which doesn’t include fees), according to ArtTactic, a London-based art analysis firm. The firm also noted that all of the lots were guaranteed — meaning Christie’s or a third party agreed ahead of the sale to buy the work for a minimum price — with 87% of the guaranteed value financed by a third party. 

Rosan said the fact that so many lots had third-party guarantees didn’t appear to squash buying interest, with many works attracting active bidding. That was less true for the loftiest priced pieces, with Cézanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, for example, selling in less than two minutes.

Another 95 lots from Allen’s collection were offered in a second sale that began Thursday morning with most prices at far less stratospheric levels. The results were strong, with many pieces selling significantly above high estimates, beginning with an Alexander Calder selling for nearly $1.9 million above a $350,000 high estimate. All-in-all the second auction was also 100% sold. 

“There were no bargains to be found in the day sale, that’s for sure,” says Morgan Long, managing director of the Fine Art Group in London. That’s likely because the auction got a lift from the evening sale.

“If you had any hesitations about the strength of the art market before [Wednesday] night, it was absolutely put to rest,” Long says.

Among works sold Thursday was a 19-foot-tall sculpture of a typewriter eraser by Claes Oldenburg and Coosie van Bruggen, which was displayed outside Christie’s ahead of the sale. The huge, playful work, created in 1998-99, realized $8.4 million, with fees. 

Even modestly priced works attracted attention. Alden Mason’s Sweet Encounter, from 1978, sold for $189,000, with fees, far above a $8,000 high estimate, while the very last lot, an Illustration from a Bhagavata Purana Series: Krishna Slaying Bakasura, sold for $252,000, with fees, above a $50,000 high estimate.

The Allen auctions occurred a week before a series of marquee sales in New York by Sotheby’s and Phillips in addition to Christie’s.

To Rosan, this week’s results are a harbinger for a “really strong sales season this fall,” despite political and economic uncertainties worldwide — perhaps even because of those uncertainties. 

“People want tangible assets right now — that’s not going to go away by next week,” Rosan says.  

Long believes the Allen results mean “the best things will sell very well” at the New York marquee sales. But she also believes the auction houses shouldn’t expect to have sold-out day sales, which typically are larger than the evening auctions and are dominated by more modestly priced works. “It’ll be back to more business as usual,” Long says. 

Sotheby’s anticipates its New York fall season will be its most valuable, with most works on offer not seen on the market “in a generation.” It includes the collections of David M. Sollinger, who was president of the board of the Whitney Museum of Art, and the media giant William S. Paley, whose works had been under the care of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

The Sollinger collection of 23 works include Willem de Kooning’s Collage, 1950, with an estimate between $18 million and US$25 million. Pablo Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil, 1927, Joan Míro’s Femme, étoiles, 1945, and Alberto Giacometti’s Trois hommes qui marchent (grand plateau), also will be sold with presale estimates each between $15 million and $20 million. 

The 29 works offered by the Paley foundation, with a total presale estimate of $70 million, will lead the auction house’s modern evening sale on Monday’s Nov. 14. The works include Piet Mondrian’s Composition No II, with an estimate of more than $50 million, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure: Festival sculpture, with estimate of more than $30 million, and Picasso’s Guitare sur une table, with an estimate of more than $25 million. 

The top lot of Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale on Wednesday, Nov. 16, is Andy Warhol’s White Disaster (White Car Crash 19 Times), 1963, which has a presale estimate in excess of US$80 million. That sale will also include abstracts from Willem de Kooning, offered by his family, and Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1964, estimated to sell for between $30 million and $40 million. 

Sotheby’s “The Now” sale of very recently made art—which will precede the contemporary art sale next Wednesday—will include works by Yoshitoma Nara, Cecily Brown, Salmon Toor, and several female artists, including Jacqueline Humphries, Avery Singer, Charline von Heyl and Anna Weyant.  

At Phillips, Cy Twombly’s Untitled, 2005, from the artist’s Bacchus paintings, with a presale estimate range between $35 million and $45 million, will lead the evening sale on Tuesday, along with works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amy Sherald, Marc Chagall and Warhol. 

Read on: Paintings by college-age Andy Warhol put on auction block by Warhola family

Christie’s, meanwhile, will have more big works for sale at its 20th- and 21st-century evening auction at its back-to-back 20th-century and 21st-century evening sales on Thursday, Nov. 17. Among these will be Basquiat’s Sugar Ray Robinson, from 1982, being offered in the region of $35 million. 

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