Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Paul Allen Collection

Paul Allen (1953-2018) was a businessman, computer programmer, researcher, investor, and philanthropist. He also owned a football team and a basketball team. He is best known, however, for having been a co-founder of Microsoft with his good friend Bill Gates. Now, I just read about the sale of his real-estate empire, but this missive is about his art collection which was recently sold at Christies.

I will give you the punch line up front. Part one of the auction brought in $1.5 billion dollars eclipsing the recent record of $992 million that the Macklowe sale brought at Sotheby’s.

A knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss this as an example of the ridiculous prices that modern art brings these days, but that would be totally wrong. When anyone asks me if art is a good investment, I say emphatically, NO! Sometimes, however, I amend that to say, unless you have the millions to buy the very best works by the leading artists and diversify into many fields. Until now I have never actually seen such collection.

Unfortunately, I have only seen the Paul Allen Collection in the Christie’s online catalog, but I could not believe my eyes. Here was a billionaire who obviously bought only what he liked. He did not try to fill in the blanks of a postage stamp album (which some art collectors try to do) or concentrate on one period of art, or one artist. Not that there is anything wrong with that. My wife and I, however, have had several collections of works that cost us from the hundreds to some thousands of dollars, but I cannot remember ever buying anything in the 5-digit range. We lost money on everything we sold except for our photography collection which we bought mostly in the late 70’s and 80’s.

Speaking of photography, Edward Steichen’s 1904 photograph of the Flatiron Building in New York City was offered to us back when we collected in the field. We didn’t buy it because I just didn’t love it. Christies estimated Allen’s 1905 print of that image at $2-3 million, which I would have been happy with, but it brought $11 million dollars, even better!

One of my favorite artists Lucien Freud (1922-2011) was represented in the Allen collection with a masterpiece, “Large interior, W11 (after Watteau)” (1981-83). It brought $86,265,000. Like most of the pictures in the sale it has an extensive list of publications and exhibitions and the known provenance. Clearly Allen did his homework with the advice of scholars as well as the top art dealers from whom he usually bought his works of art.

“Day Dream” by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) is a nude that might seem an unusual subject for the artist, but it is from a series of paintings he did of his muse, Helga. From Wikipedia I learned “Helga ‘Testy’ Testorf was a neighbor of Wyeth's in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and over the course of fifteen years posed for Wyeth indoors and out of doors, nude and clothed, in attitudes that reminded writers of figures painted by Botticelli and Edouard Manet. To John Updike, her body ‘is what Winslow Homers maidens would have looked like beneath their Calico.’ " If someone had asked me if this painting was a good investment, I would have said, no. I would have advised acquiring a painting more typical of the artist’s work, certainly not a nude which are often more difficult to sell. Wrong again! The painting was estimated at 2-3 million and brought $23,290,000.

There are several paintings by David Hockney (1937- ) in the sale but I have chosen this masterpiece “The Conversation” (1980) because we were well acquainted with one of the sitters, Henry Geldzahler. My wife worked with Henry when he was the curator of 20thcentury art at the Metropolitan Museum and he was a personal friend of many of the contemporary artists of the time, including Hockney. The painting, by a living artist, brought almost 8 million dollars.

What I so admire in the Allen collection is its breadth with quality being the only constant. Most of the works in the auction are from the 20th century with a few from the 21st. But the biggest surprise, for me, was the roundel masterpiece by Sandro Botticell (1445-1510) “Madonna of the Magnificat”, circa 1480’s. The provenance includes Rosenberg & Stiebel and we sold it to Barbara Piaseca Johnson of the Johnson & Johnson fortune. While not exactly in fashion because you cannot find paintings as important as this on the market today, it still brought a respectable $40 million.

In the New York Times Blake Gopnik lamented the fact that the Allen collection did not go to The National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum. I would ask why have those treasures go to a gargantuan museum with enough of their own masterpieces. If they were to go to a museum, why not a small institution which would put it on the map and the Allen collection masterpieces would attract visitors.

Through the sale, however, individual works of art will be spread far and wide and, in the scheme of things, many will end up in public collections. The proceeds are to go to charities that Allen chose helping those in need of assistance in many areas. Why does nobody ever see the positive sides of events. It is far too easy to criticize instead.


  1. Thank you! Nicholas W.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful assessment of the Allen collection. The art world never ceases to amaze me!