On Wednesday, November 9th, Christie’s New York hosted what was expected to be the most valuable single collection ever sold at auction, that of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Previously, that title was held by Harry and Linda Macklowe. They sold their collection of modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York for $922M w/p across a pair of evening sales on November 15, 2021 and May 16, 2022. Not only was the Allen collection set to break that record, but Wednesday’s sale, the first of two, was also expected to break the record for the most expensive single auction in history. Until Wednesday, that record was held by Christie’s New York when their postwar and contemporary evening sale brought in $744.9M w/p. The first night of the Paul Allen collection smashed all those records.
The sale began with a burst of energy with Quatre Baigneuses by Pablo Picasso. The auctioneer, Adrian Meyer, spent the first fifteen seconds speaking so quickly, acknowledging every bid coming in, that he sounded as if he was moderating a livestock auction in Texas rather than a fine art saleroom in New York. The sale’s top lots were what exactly the Christie’s specialists were anticipating. The star in first place was Les Poseuses by the pointillist master Georges Seurat, described by Meyer as perhaps one of the finest pointillist paintings ever created. It was last sold at auction in June 1970 at Christie’s London, where it achieved $1.03M w/p. Most people will mainly know Seurat from his incredibly popular Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte, housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. In case you needed that reminder, Les Poseuses shows nude models in the artist’s studio with the famous park scene on the wall in the background. The bidding started at $75M and, within thirty seconds, made its way up to $100M. Over the next five minutes, bids slowly trickled in from the telephone banks until the hammer came down at $130M (or $149.2M w/p). This completely smashed Seurat’s auction record, which was previously set at Sotheby’s New York in 1999, when Paysage, l’Île de la Grande-Jatte sold for $35.2M w/p. Second place, however, was what the experts predicted would be the true star of the sale. Paul Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire was used extensively in the sale’s promotion, understandably so. It was last sold at auction in May 2001 at Phillips New York for $38.5M w/p. While it may have been slightly overshadowed by the Seurat painting, $120M (or $137.8M w/p) is still an impressive hammer price, especially since the bidding only lasted a grand total of ninety seconds. And lastly, the third lot to sell for over $100M, the 1888 Vincent van Gogh work Verger avec cyprès. While Adrian Meyer made a point to highlight that the Seurat painting had not been up at auction in over fifty years, the last time that the Van Gogh sold was in December 1935. It’s one of the last of Van Gogh’s orchard paintings to remain in private hands, so the hammer price of $102M (or $117.2M w/p) was not unwarranted.
While the nineteenth-century European modernist masters were the ones that dominated the sale, they were by no means the only group represented. The auction also featured Old Masters like Botticelli and Brueghel the Younger, the greats of abstract painting like Klee and Kandinsky, and surrealists like Dalí and Tanguy. While they all received their respective millions, there was a bit of a wake-up call halfway through the sale with Andrew Wyeth’s painting Day Dream. Though created in 1980, the medium is incredibly old-fashioned. Wyeth chose tempera on panel to show a nude woman asleep and veiled by a sheer canopy hanging from somewhere unknown to the viewer. Though the medium is often associated with medieval art before oil paints became popular in the West, it remained in use among some twentieth-century artists like Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benson. Day Dream had previously been in the collection of the American businessman Armand Hammer and was displayed in his eponymous museum in Los Angeles until 2011. It was predicted by Christie’s to make a measly $3M at most. So even in an exciting, historic sale such as this, the fact that bids kept coming in for something relatively low-value for this sale made it only more exciting. The hammer eventually came down at $20M (or $23.3M w/p), more than six times what it was expected to make.
Ultimately, the first sixty items of Paul Allen’s collection accrued a price tag some would describe as ludicrous, possibly even obscene, depending on your perspective. Even with over ninety lots left to be sold in the day sale, the collection has already smashed the record for the most expensive collection ever sold at auction. It also obliterated the record for the most expensive single auction in recorded history. Sixty paintings and sculptures brought in a total hammer price of $1.29 billion (or $1.5 billion w/p), slightly above the $1.23 billion number that the house experts had given as their total presale high estimate.. All sixty lots sold, with thirty-five (or 58%) exceeding the estimates Christie’s experts had assigned to them. With twenty-one lots selling within estimate and four selling below, Christie’s house specialists earned a 35% accuracy rate that night. Safe to say that this was a historic night not just for Christie’s but for the art market.