Paul G. Allen and the Art He Didn’t Sell
Last week, Christie’s auction house sold more than $1.5 billion in record-breaking art from the estate of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. Died in 2018.
But I was frankly surprised to see those works in Christie’s showrooms.
Ten years ago this fall, I had a chat with Allen about his collection, and he kept coming back to the importance of public access to art: “People should be able to see these pictures, and enjoy them, and appreciate them, and think about them. about them,” he told me. He spoke of his own love of public museums: his first visit to the Tate in London was “mind-blowing” (Allen’s favorite adjective); he was stunned by the Monets in the Louvre. Great objects in any child’s life. “Parents have to take you to the museum and say, ‘Hey kid, I know you’re bored, and you want to play a video game, but this An amazing job.’” He said he’s proud of the traveling shows he’s already mounted and the exhibits he’s loaned to museums and galleries.
And yet, post-auction, many of Allen’s “masterpieces”—as evidenced by their huge price tags—are more likely to be tucked away on billionaires’ yachts and private islands for decades to come than on museum walls for all to see.
Last week, thousands of New Yorkers waited in endless lines to contemplate Allen’s holdings at Christie’s, and I think that’s because they knew it might be half a lifetime before most of them would get another chance to see it.
Allen’s estate has not yet released the name, as proceeds from the Christie’s auction will go to selected charities. And that in itself is proof that Allen may not be as valuable to his wealth as we think. It shows, by definition, the money he valued his works of art to bring to a good cause more than the pleasure and knowledge they might bring to future museum-goers, if he had left them in our National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum, or even his entire trove. The Seattle Art Museum, in his hometown, has been the kind of bequest for magnates over the years.
Special Department of Fine Arts and Exhibitions
Thinking back on my conversation with Allen, I realize that maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by Christie’s sale. Although he expressed great enthusiasm for the masterpieces he bought, it was more of the enthusiasm expressed by a new owner—a car or a watch or a yacht (he showed off a model of his 400-footer)—than by someone who truly Touched the art and let him change it or wanted it to. When he talked about his art, it was in tidy clichés about “beauty” and “compassion” and “freedom” that didn’t seem to have much hold on the actual work or their experience.
Christie’s stellar offerings awakened my sense of Allen’s taste. I felt like I was watching a greatest-hits spread unbounded by any intense aesthetic or artistic vision. was a bold, messy group portrait by Lucian Freud of Britain, But a primitive, barely-there abstraction by Americans Agnes Martin; A brush field of color spots by Damien Hirst (or his assistants) in the early 2000s clashed with the most delicate, most personal painterly images. The Flatiron Building in New York By Edward Steichen, from a century ago.
It all made me think of Allen as someone who might have enjoyed buying a $15 million Stradivarius violin and a $12 million Mickey Mantle baseball card and a $10 million stamp from British Guiana.
But there was a work in sales—a real extrovert—that mixed with the stronger, more focused feelings I glimpsed when I met Allen. At Christie’s, pieces by certified geniuses of Western “high” art have been created. The fragment reminded me of the great excitement Allen had shown a decade earlier, when he had me in the 1950s or so. Ask to see a series of paintings that were used to reproduce the cover of Science in the 60s. Fiction novel or magazine: I’ve seen strange Martian landscapes, galactic skies, and maybe a rocket ship or two.
I can’t confirm those memories, right off the bat, because none of those pictures ended up at Christie’s. (Although you could say that Allen’s Botticelli has some extraterrestrial weirdness, if only because of its distance from today’s culture, and that his paintings by Salvador Dali and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef could work with Philip K. Dick’s stories.) But I note that in our interview the so-called Allen’s enthusiasm for those objects of “popular” culture seemed much more intense and heartfelt than the feeling he expressed for masterpieces that cost a thousand times more.
And it may be born in the future that seems to be in store for those sci-fi objects, separate from Christie’s personal hand-sold fortune. A spokesperson for Seattle last month Museum of Pop Culture, Founded by Allen in 2000 — his sister, Jody Allen, is its current chair — told The Times that more than 4,000 non-fine arts and culture objects from the Allen estate, worth about $20 million, ended up in its holdings, and I can only hope Pari that sci-fi paintings will be among them. (A representative for Vulcan, the Allen Company in charge of his estate, later said that the bequest to MOPOP was not final and that Vulcan could not confirm the exact number or type of items in it. As their boss was still alive, his Vulcans played their cards close to their chests.)
“If you can expose your kids to a wide range of things that exist in the arts and are completely and utterly wonderful, some of those things will really resonate with them,” Allen told me.
I think that the sale at Christie’s, and then the bequest to MoPOP, shows that what he really regarded as the most wonderful, in that broad range, can be different from what the art market does.
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