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Record-breaking sale of Microsoft co-founder’s art collection surpasses $1.6 billion

Cézanne's "La Montagne Sainte-Victoire" attracted the night's second biggest sale price

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN and Oscar Holland, CNN

Art from the private collection of late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen fetched over $1.6 billion this week to become the largest single-owner sale in auction history.

Works by Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Gustav Klimt all sold for over $100 million across a record-shattering two nights at Christie’s in New York.

Spanning 500 years of art history, art from Allen’s collection was offered on Wednesday and Thursday, with all proceeds going to philanthropic causes, the auction house said. Christie’s had initially estimated that the 150-plus works would sell for a combined $1 billion, but the landmark sum was exceeded even before the conclusion of day one.

Works by contemporary artists Jasper Johns and Lucian Freud were also among the record-breakers on Wednesday, which saw sales in excess of 1.5 billion. Paintings by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock were among dozens more that went under the hammer on day two to add a further $115.9 million to the total.

The auction’s single biggest sale was Seurat’s “Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version),” pictured above, which fetched over $149.2 million — almost five times the previous record for the French artist’s work.

Elsewhere, Cézanne’s oil on canvas “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire,” one of more than 30 views he painted of the French mountain range, sold for almost $137.8 million. Allen acquired the famed alpine scene in 2001 for $35 million, then the second-highest price paid for a Cézanne at auction, according to Max Carter, a vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s.

Only five of the painter’s views of Sainte-Victoire are left in private hands, Carter added. “Each one is from a slightly different vantage point. Most of them are slightly further back,” he told CNN in an interview prior to the sale. “It’s also rare that it’s… not obscured by any trees in front of the mountain.”

A Van Gogh painting, “Verger avec cyprès,” meanwhile fetched almost $117.2 million to become the most expensive work by the artist ever to sell at auction. Painted in Arles, France, two years before the artist’s death, it is “as special as any Van Gogh we’ve offered in 30 years,” according to Carter.

“This is when his color has become unmoored from reality and is dictated by imagination,” Carter said. Out of the orchard series, “only five are in private hands,” he added. “The vast majority are in museums.”

The two other artworks to attract nine-figure bids were Gauguin’s “Maternité II,” which fetched $105.7 million, and Klimt’s “Birch Forest,” a large-scale landscape that sold for over $104.5 million.

Showing a dappled wood scene on the outskirts of Vienna, and painted in Klimt’s romantic Art Nouveau style, the latter artwork is “almost like a fairy tale,” Carter said. The sale set a new auction record for the Austrian artist a decade and a half after it was part of a landmark sale that included five Klimt masterpieces once looted by Nazis.

The Gauguin painting also smashed a previous auction record for the artist’s work (though one sold at a private sale in 2015 reportedly sold upwards of $300 million). Allen bought the canvas, which has religious overtones in its mother-and-child composition, in 2004 for a then-record $39 million.

It was painted during Gauguin’s 10-year stint in French Polynesia, a period of his life that is rife with controversy (he fathered a child with a teenager there) but that produced paintings that are still highly sought-after.

“Most of the paintings or drawings that come up (for sale) tend to be from earlier periods in his life,” Carter said.

Contemporary masters

After spending several decades assembling his collection, Allen lent works to museums around the world, including The National Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts in London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition “Seeing Nature,” based on his collection, toured the US in 2016 and 2017 with stops at the Seattle Museum of Art and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, among others. Allen died in 2018 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 65.

“(Allen) was collecting all the way up until the year that he passed away,” Johanna Flaum, a vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s, told CNN ahead of the sale.

While most of Wednesday’s biggest sellers date back to the 19th century, contemporary masterpieces also attracted record-breaking sums.

A 1980s work by British painter Lucian Freud, “Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau),” sold for $86 million, shattering the artist’s previous record of $56.2 million. Allen acquired the painting in 1998 for $5.8 million, around 15 years after Freud completed it.

The painting, which has been widely exhibited around the world, took two years for Freud to complete. It was modeled after the figures in French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “Les Jaloux (The Jealous Ones)” from the early 18th century. But Freud populated his swirling interior scene with his own loved ones.

“(It) has largely been regarded, since the time it was painted, as being Freud’s very best painting,” Flaum said.

“The painting includes a compilation of those that were the closest to Freud: a current lover, ex-lover, (his) children,” she explained. “His world is encapsulated in the figures, so it’s quite personal.”

Elsewhere, a total of six works by Jasper Johns, the prolific American artist who mounted a two-city retrospective in New York and Philadelphia last year, were offered for sale across the two nights. On Wednesday “Small False Start” sold for over $55.3 million.

As well as setting an auction record for the 92-year-old painter, it is now among the most expensive works by a living artist ever to go under the hammer.

“One of the interesting things about the Johns market is that there really has been very little to come to auction by way of significant works,” Flaum said. “There certainly have been very significant prices that have traded privately… The auction market particularly has really been starved for top quality work by Johns.”

The diversity of works in Allen’s collection extended not only to different time periods but also varied media. Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois also featured across the two-day sale, alongside a hanging mobile by Alexander Calder, an earthenware ceramic vase by Pablo Picasso and a neon sign by American artist Bruce Nauman.

“It’s hard to say there’s one unifying principle for a collection that spans 500 years of the greatest works of Western art,” Carter said. “But I think, to an extent, you can — he was looking at artists who looked at the world a different way, and who were… looking ahead to the future.”

Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, said in a press statement ahead of the sale that, to her brother, art was “both analytical and emotional.”

“He believed that art expressed a unique view of reality — combining the artist’s inner state and inner eye — in a way that can inspire us all,” she said. “His collection reflects the diversity of his interests, with their own mystique and beauty.”

Top image: “Les Poseuses, Ensemble” by Georges Seurat.

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