Paul G. Allen and the art he didn't sell

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Paul G. Allen and the art he didn't sell
Georges Seurat’s “Les Poseuses Ensemble (Petite version)” (1888) is auctioned during the Paul Allen sale at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center in New York, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

by Blake Gopnik



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 Christie’s 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 Christie’s 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” (Allen’s favorite adjective); he was stunned by the Monets at the Louvre. He waxed on about the role great objects can play in any child’s life. “Parents need to take you to museums and say, ‘Hey kid, I know you’re bored, and you’d 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 Allen’s “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 Allen’s holdings at Christie’s, and I think that’s because they knew it might be half a lifetime before they got another chance to see most of them.

The money raised in the Christie’s auction is due to go to select charities, as yet unidentified by Allen’s 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 Christie’s 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 didn’t seem to have much grip on actual works or his experience of them.




The star offerings at Christie’s bore out my sense of Allen’s 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 Britain’s 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 York’s 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 Christie’s 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, I’d 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 can’t confirm those memories, right off the bat, because none of those pictures ended up at Christie’s. (Even though you could say that Allen’s Botticelli has some extraterrestrial strangeness to it, if only because of its distance from today’s 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 Allen’s 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 Christie’s. Last month, a spokesperson for Seattle’s 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 Christie’s, 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.










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