Historic auction night in New York: Microsoft co-founder's art collection tops $1 billion

Sylvie Claire / November 10, 2022

The auction of the art collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who died in 2018, surpassed the historic $1 billion mark Wednesday night, with a flurry of records for works by Van Gogh, Cézanne or Gauguin.


In a sign that the art market continues to grow despite economic uncertainties related to the war in Ukraine and inflation, five paintings entered the exclusive club of works sold for more than $100 million at auction on this memorable evening at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.


The most expensive, Georges Seurat's "The Poseurs, Together (small version)" (1888), a painting considered a masterpiece of Pointillism, another version of which hangs at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, fetched $149.24 million including fees, Christie's announced. The company did not give information about the identity of the buyers, a customary practice for auction houses.


Christie's, controlled by François Pinault's holding company Artémis, had announced that the entire amount of the sales would be donated to charity. Despite his disagreement with Bill Gates, his partner in the birth of Microsoft in 1975, the American billionaire Paul Allen, had signed in 2009 his "Giving Pledge", committing to donate the majority of his fortune.


While only 60 lots out of 150 were sold on Wednesday - the rest will be sold on Thursday - the value of the collection has already surpassed the previous record of the Macklowe collection, named after a wealthy New York couple, which fetched $922 million at rival Sotheby's this spring. According to an AFP calculation, the sale totaled about $1.5 billion.


The billion-dollar mark was surpassed on lot number 32, an Alberto Giacometti sculpture, Woman of Venice III, which sold for $25 million, an almost mundane figure on Wednesday night in the crowded Christie's auction room.


From the German-American painter-sculptor Max Ernst, whose sculpture "The King Playing with the Queen" sold for $24.3 million, to the American Jasper Johns, one of the few living artists in the collection, whose lithograph "Small False Start" sold for $55.35 million, to Diego Rivera and Lucian Freud, numerous auction records for artists fell one after another.


This avalanche testifies to the quality of the collection amassed by Paul Allen, a jack-of-all-trades billionaire who founded a pop culture museum in his hometown of Seattle and owned several sports franchises, including the Seattle Seahawks.


Thus, after Georges Seurat's "Les Poseuses", a "Montagne Sainte-Victoire" (1888-1890) by Paul Cézanne, a precursor of Cubism, reached 137.79 million.


Records were also broken for Vincent Van Gogh, whose "Orchard with Cypresses" sold for $117.1 million, and for Paul Gauguin, whose Tahitian period painting, "Maternity II" (1899), went for $105.73 million. A work by Gustav Klimt, "Birch Forest", fetched $104.5 million, again a record.


With these sales, and that of a portrait of Marilyn Monroe "Shot Sage Blue Marilyn" by Andy Warhol, which sold in May for $195 million, the year 2022 should remain one of the most expensive in the history of the art market.


According to auction house experts, art is more than ever a safe investment in the eyes of the wealthy, despite an uncertain economic environment.


"Clients want to diversify their assets, to take advantage of art and because they know that most works continue to increase in value over time," explained to AFP, a few days before the sale, the co-chairman of the department Impressionists and Modern Art at Christie's, Adrien Meyer.


There are more billionaires than masterpieces" available on the market, he summarized, and "the demand is very diversified", with a growing presence of clients from Asia and the Middle East.

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