NEW YORK, NY.-
A Vincent van Gogh landscape to die for. A sacred scene by Sandro Botticelli that puts a lump in your throat. One of Jasper Johns stunningly subtle map paintings.
Those were just a few of the treasures on view last week when Christies auction house broke records by selling more than $1.5 billion in art from the estate of Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft who died in 2018.
But I was frankly surprised to see those works in the Christies showrooms.
Ten years ago this fall, I had a chat with Allen about his collecting, 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, he told me. He talked about his own love of public museums: His first visit to the Tate in London was mind-blowing (Allens favorite adjective); he was stunned by the Monets at the Louvre. He waxed on about the role great objects can play in any childs life. Parents need to take you to museums and say, Hey kid, I know youre bored, and youd rather be playing a video game, but this is an amazing work. He said he took pride in the traveling shows he had mounted and the exhibition loans he had made to museums and galleries.
And yet, post-auction, many of Allens masterpieces certified as such by their massive price tags are more likely to spend the next few decades hidden away on billionaires yachts and private islands than on view to all on museum walls.
Last week, thousands of New Yorkers waited in endless lines to contemplate Allens holdings at Christies, and I think thats because they knew it might be half a lifetime before they got another chance to see most of them.
The money raised in the Christies auction is due to go to select charities, as yet unidentified by Allens estate. And that itself is proof that Allen may not have valued his treasures as much as we might think. It shows, by definition, that he valued the money his artworks could bring to good causes more than the pleasure and knowledge they could bring to future museumgoers, if he had left the whole trove to our National Gallery or to the Metropolitan Museum or even to the Seattle Art Museum in his hometown, in the kind of bequest that was common for magnates in years gone by.
Thinking back on my conversation with Allen, I realize that maybe I should not have been that surprised by the Christies sale. Although he did express plenty of enthusiasm for the masterpieces he had bought, it was more the enthusiasm expressed by a new owner of a car, or a watch, or a yacht (he showed off a model of his 400-footer) than of someone who had truly let the art touch and change him, or wanted it to. When he talked about his art, it was in tidy clichés about beauty and poignancy and freedom that didnt seem to have much grip on actual works or his experience of them.
The star offerings at Christies bore out my sense of Allens taste. I felt I was seeing a greatest-hits spread unbound by any intense aesthetic or artistic vision.
There was a bold, messy group portrait by Britains Lucian Freud but also a pristine, barely-there abstraction by American Agnes Martin; a brash field of colored spots painted by Damien Hirst (or his assistants) early in the 2000s clashed with the subtlest, most personal of painterly photos of New Yorks Flatiron Building by Edward Steichen, from a century earlier.
It all made me think of Allen as the kind of person who might have enjoyed buying, and owning, a $15 million Stradivarius violin and a $12 million Mickey Mantle baseball card and a $10 million stamp from British Guiana.
But there was one work in the sale a real outlier that meshed with stronger, more focused feelings that I seemed to glimpse when I met with Allen. Hanging among pieces by certified geniuses of Western high art at Christies sat a dreamy, sunset scene of teen girls in nature, painted in 1926 by American Maxfield Parrish, best known for his truly great work in commercial illustration. It called to mind the tremendous excitement that Allen showed, a decade ago, when he had me look at a series of paintings that had been used, sometime in the 1950s or 60s, Id guess, for reproduction on the cover of science-fiction novels or magazines: I remember seeing weird Martian landscapes, galactic skies and maybe a rocket ship or two.
I cant confirm those memories, right off the bat, because none of those pictures ended up at Christies. (Even though you could say that Allens Botticelli has some extraterrestrial strangeness to it, if only because of its distance from todays culture, and that his paintings by Salvador Dalí and Jacob Hendrik Pierneef might work with stories by Philip K. Dick.) But I do remember that in our interview Allens enthusiasm for those objects from so-called popular culture seemed much more intense, and heartfelt, than the feelings he expressed for masterpieces that had cost him thousands of times more.
And that may be born out in the future that seems in store for those sci-fi objects, different from the fate of the ones sold into private hands at Christies. Last month, a spokesperson for Seattles Museum of Pop Culture, founded by Allen in 2000 his sister Jody Allen is its current chair told The New York Times that more than 4,000 objects of un-fine art and culture from the Allen estate, valued at some $20 million, were due to end up among its holdings, and I can only hope that the sci-fi paintings will be among them. (A representative from Vulcan, the Allen company in charge of his estate, later weighed in to say that the bequest to MoPOP was not final and that Vulcan could not confirm the exact number or type of objects in it. As when their boss was alive, his Vulcans play their cards close to their chests.)
If you can expose your kids to the wide range of things that exist in the arts, and are completely and totally wonderful, some of those things will really resonate with them, Allen told me.
I think that the sale at Christies, and then the bequest to MoPOP, show that what he really counted as most wonderful, in that wide range, might be different from what the art market does.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times