Launching the fall auction season in New York on Wednesday evening, Christie’s anticipated sale of works amassed by the late tech mogul and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen fetched a collective $1.5 billion with fees, per ARTNews.
The result is the highest sum ever achieved for a single-owner sale ever to come to auction. It surpassed the $922 million generated by the court-ordered sale of the Macklowe collection, sold at Sotheby’s earlier this year, and the $835 million total drawn during the sale of David Rockefeller’s collection at Christie’s in 2018.
The white-glove sale saw each of its 60 lots offered, all backed with financial guarantees, placing with buyers and few selling for prices below their high estimates. Thirty-five of the sale’s lots held third party guarantees—minimum bids secured by the auction house in deals with outside parties ahead of the sale which are meant to offset financial risk. The collection outpaced its high expectation of $1.38 billion designated by Christie’s.
Christie’s auctioneer Adrien Meyer took to the rostrum to lead the first portion of the auction on Wednesday, passing the gavel to Christie’s European President Jussi Pylkannen midway through the night, the results of which provided evidence to the auction room’s attendees of a trade thriving despite the looming threat of a recession. Drawing an estimated crowd of 250 spectators, Wednesday’s 2.5 hour-long event saw deadlocked bidding among specialists as international competition for Allen’s long-held art works intensified throughout the sale.
The sale proceeds will go toward philanthropic causes Allen established prior to his death in 2018 at the age of 65. A second tranche of the total 150 works from Allen’s estate to be sold by Christie’s will be offered in a a day sale on Thursday.
If there was ever a sign that billionaire wealth is insulated from an economic downturn, it was this evening’s results. Collector Alberto Mugrabi told ARTnews that the night’s bidding activity, which moved the sale result past $1 billion only midway through, showed “no signs of a recession.”
Twenty records, for artists spanning decades of the art historical canon from Gustav Klimt to Andrew Wyeth, were set during the sale.
The market’s behemoth figures were present. Lurking in the shadowy wing near the auction room’s entrance was Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti. Holding stern attention on phonebanks hosting his international specialists, the French executive, known for his staid demeanor, told ARTnews following the sale that the “lines around the block” to see the works on view at their Rockefeller headquarters before Wednesday had surprised even him. Among the major dealers filling out the auction’s shoulder-to-shoulder seated audience were Brett Gorvy, Dominique Lévy, Phillip Hoffman and Larry Gagosian.
Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Klimt Make It to $100 Million
Five works from Wednesday’s sale achieved prices at or above $100 million.
The work that fetched the highest price overall, offered during the first half of the sale, was Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), a canvas depicting three nude women in a pointillist style that the artist produced between 1888 and 1890. A bidder on the phone with Christie’s Asia chairman Xin Li won the work on a bid of $130 million, spurring applause in the room. The final price for the work with buyer’s fees was $149 million—above the $100 million estimate.
The Seurat was one of a few works won by bidders calling in with Lee; the sale saw 12 percent of its lots go to buyers based in Asia, a trend noticed by the sale’s watchers.
“The real takeaway for me,” Gagosian told ARTnews following the sale, “was that Asian buyers seem to be very much in the game.”
Another major sale was Paul Cezanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a panoramic view of the French Arc Valley completed between 1888 and 1890. The painting hammered at a bid of $120 million, meeting its pre-sale expectation, going to its sole bidder on the phone with Jussi Pylkannen for a final price of $138 million with fees. The result surpassed Cezanne’s previous record of $60.5 million set two decades ago.
Elsewhere, Vincent van Gogh’s Verger avec cyprès, an outdoor landscape that has been in the Allen collection for more than two decades—estimated to fetch $100 million—sold for a record-setting $117 million with fees.
Additionally, Paul Gauguin’s 1899 oil painting Maternité II depicting three partially nude Tahitian women posed before a pink background, sold for $106 million with fees, against an estimate of $90 million. The price surpassed Gaugin’s previous auction record of $40 million, set during the sale of L’homme à la hache (1891) at Christie’s in 2006.
Gustav Klimt’s 1903 intimate landscape Birch Forest, once the subject of a major restitution to the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer, sold for $105 million with fees. The price set a new auction benchmark for the Austrian painter—previously $88 million set in 2006.
Art appraiser David Shapiro described the number of single lots to reach over the $100 million mark in one night as “unprecedented.” The night’s results, he told ARTnews show “demand remains extremely strong” for Impressionist and modern works despite fodder in the market that shifts in taste might make the period less desirable.
Measuring 24 inches in diameter, Sandro Botticelli’s tondo painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ as a child, titled Madonna of the Magnificat, was among the few Old Masters works in the group. Produced in the late 1480s, at a time when Botticelli’s studio was thriving, the painting hammered at $42 million — above its $40 million estimate.
Another by 16th-century Flemish artist Jan Breughel the Younger, offered as single-lot comprising five separate canvases, saw a slow burn of bidding between four specialists in New York and London. The competition rose the hammer above its high estimate to $7.2 million, going for a final price of $8.3 million and setting a new record for the artist.
New Records Set for Freud, Wyeth, Steichen, and More
Many new records were set even for artists whose works garnered lesser sums.
Lucian Freud’s Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau), a painting of four figures huddled on a bed portraying the artist’s children and lovers hammered at its estimate of $75 million, going to a buyer on the phone with Christie’s New York deputy chairman Sara Friedlander.
A deadlocked bidding battle between Christie’s Asia chairman Zin Lee and Christie’s West Coast chairman Ellanor Notides drove Andrew Wyeth’s painting Day Dream (1980) to a hammer price of $20 million—a staggering figure for a work estimated at $2 million. The painting, a voyeuristic view of a naked woman sleeping on a bed posed beneath a gauzy canopy, was the night’s “surprise” lot, according to New York art adviser Erica Samuels. The final price of $23.3 million doubled the previous milestone auction price of $10.4 million set in 2007 at Christie’s for the sale of Wyeth’s Ericksons (1973).
There was one female artist in particular who triumphed amid the male blue-chip peers dominating the sale. Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1927 floral abstraction drew a bidding craze, selling for more than four times its low estimate of $6 million, going for a final price of $26.7 million with fees. That sum came shy of O’Keefe’s auction record of $44 million, which had been set back in 2014 for the sale of Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, at Sotheby’s in New York.
Later in the sale, records were set for sculptures and paintings by Barbara Hepworth, Max Ernst, Diego Rivera, and Thomas Hart Benton at prices ranging between $8 million to $24 million.
One of the night’s other eye-catching records was achieved with the sale of an edition of Edward Steichen’s famed 1904 photograph of New York’s Flatiron building. Drawing competition from bidders on the phone with Christie’s Dallas-based representative Capera Ryan and photographs specialist Darius Himes, the hammer price climbed to $10 million, surpassing the low $2 million by a factor of five. Selling for a final price of $11.8 million with fees, the result marks the second highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction—just shy of the record $12.4 million set for a Man Ray photograph in May at Christie’s.
“People thought the fireworks were going to happen at the top,” art dealer David Norman told ARTnews following the sale.
For the lots carrying estimates under $20 million, Norman said, “That’s where the bidding revved up. It gives a shot of confidence, leading off the week, in the midst of all that happening in the world on all fronts, to see so much great art and multiple bidders on so many lots.”