At great art auctions, bids are always historic compared to the ones that precede them. Both because of the works’ importance and the bidders’ money, records and superlatives abound. The post-pandemic boom in art sales attests to that fact. The art market escaped unscathed from the effects of global turmoil and generated $65 billion in 2021 alone, according to Art Basel and USB’s annual evaluation. But Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s art collection, which Christie’s will put up for auction in November, is on an entirely different level. The prestigious auction house called it “the largest and most exceptional sale in the history of auctions.” Allen, who died in 2018, left a collection of 150 works of art that span a period of 500 years, from Botticelli to Roy Lichtenstein. All told, the pieces are worth $1 billion, and all the proceeds from the auction will go to charitable causes.
Allen’s collection features masterpiece paintings, primarily landscapes and representational art. After he founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, Allen experienced an artistic epiphany during a trip to London, where he discovered Turner’s seascapes and Lichtenstein’s pop art at the Tate Gallery. A noted philanthropist, in 2000, Allen launched the Museum of Pop Culture; it’s housed in a Seattle building designed by architect Frank Gehry. In 2003, he established the scientific research institute that bears his name; also located in Seattle, it specializes in neurology and immunology. Allen helped reinvigorate the city with his investments; he also financed public art projects and local artists there. Sources at his foundation emphasize Allen’s broad humanism. He donated a total of $2.65 billion to various charitable causes, including scientific research, protecting endangered species, and an array of artistic initiatives.
An avid collector for decades, in the late 1990s Allen began publicly sharing pieces from his art collection by making dozens of loans to museums around the world, often anonymously. He also mounted exhibitions that showcased the art he owned, as in the 2016 “Seeing Nature” show, which toured the United States. The exhibit brought together 39 landscapes by well-known artists like Brueghel the Younger, Van Gogh, Hopper and Klimt, allowing the viewer to appreciate how that genre of painting developed over time. In 2006, Allen’s own museum hosted the art show “Double Take: From Monet to Lichtenstein,” which contrasted Impressionist works with the Old Masters’ paintings.
“The inspirational figure of Paul Allen, the extraordinary quality and diversity of the works, and the dedication of all proceeds to philanthropy, create a unique combination that will make the sale of the Paul G. Allen Collection an event of unprecedented magnitude,” Guillaume Cerutti, executive director of Christie’s, said in a press release. “Paul’s life was guided by his desire to make this world a better place. We believe that presenting his collection at auction and giving the opportunity to wider audiences to discover it will be a fitting tribute to celebrate Paul Allen’s vision and legacy.”
Undoubtedly, the sale of the Allen Collection will be the highlight of fall’s art market. At the auction, which will take place at New York’s Rockefeller Center (the date is yet to be determined), Paul Cézanne’s La montagne Sainte-Victoire will likely fetch well over $100 million. Jasper Johns’s 1960 collage will probably sell for more than $50 million. The art market will continue to set records, as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn did when Christie’s auctioned the painting last May for $195 million, and when Sotheby’s sold the Macklowe collection for $ 922 million. But the scope of Allen’s collection will surely leave an impression. As Jody Allen, Paul’s sister and executor of his will, put it, “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. His collection reflects the diversity of his interests, with their own mystique and beauty.” She added that “these works mean so much to so many, and I know that Christie’s will ensure their respectful dispersal to generate tremendous value for philanthropic pursuits in accordance with Paul’s wishes.”