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Biggest Art Sale in History: Microsoft Co-Founder’s Collection Fetches $1.5bn

Paul Allen Microsoft co-founder
Biggest art sale in history as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection fetches $1.5bn Credit: Robert Sullivan Public Domain / Flickr

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s vast collection of paintings and sculptures recorded the biggest art sale in history, fetching a whopping $1.5bn during Christie’s New York auction on Wednesday.

According to the auction house, the total broke the record for the most expensive auction sale ever collected at a single art auction. The collection sold at high price as it contained   dozens of masterpieces by famous artists including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh among others.

Allen’s collection broke the previously set record from an auction at Sotheby’s just six months ago. That sold for $922 million, and was part of the Macklowe collection a divorced couple owned.

Before the sale, Christie’s said it was “poised to be the largest and most exceptional art auction in history,” eclipsing the $922m achieved by the sale of the Macklowe collection in May, after the divorce of the property tycoon Harry Macklowe from his wife, Linda.

According to Paul Allen’s Will before his death in 2018 due to septic shock arising out of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, his wishes were to donate the proceeds from his collections which span more than 500 years of history to philanthropic causes.

Paul Allen’s and his $1.5bn collection of art

Born in 1953, Allen began building his collection in the 1980s and it consists of 150 masterpieces from artists such as Van Gogh, Alberto Giacometti, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Jasper Johns.

Allen and founded Microsoft together with Bill Gates in 1975, kickstarting the computing revolution in the 1970s and the 1980s, turning Microsoft into the largest software company in the world.

He personally selected all the works rather than relying on art buyers to pick them out as some billionaires do. Several of the winning bids therefore smashed previous records for individual artists and many exceeded the expected sales prices estimated by Christie’s.

When some of his collection went on show in 2016, Allen said, “When you look at a painting you’re looking into a different country, into someone else’s imagination, how they saw it.”

Allen was also a noted philanthropist who donated to causes like education, environment conservation, healthcare, and more, although he left  Microsoft in 1983 due to health reasons and disagreements with Gates.

Breakdown of Allen’s individual art-winning bids

According to the auction house, among the priciest works sold was Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version), an 1888 oil on canvas depicting three nude women which fetched $149.2m including fees, a record for a Seurat piece.

Georges Seurat Models (Poseuses) Art
Georges Seurat Models (Poseuses) Art Credit: Wikipedia

The colorful landscape of Cézanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire painted from 1888-1890, sold for $137.8m in yet another record while also Gustav Klimt 1903 painting, Birch Forest, set the high mark for a Klimt work, selling for $104.6m.

Other prominent sales included the highest price ever for a van Gogh painting the Verger Avec cyprès, which sold for $117.2m together with Paul Gauguin’s 1899 oil on burlap Maternite II fetching $105.7m.

Paintings by other artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet, David Hockney, Andrew Wyeth, and Pablo Picasso were also sold alongside sculptures by Alexander Calder and Max Ernst.

A 1905 print of a photograph by Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, sold for $11.8m, a record for a Steichen work and nearly four times Christie’s highest estimate. However, additional pieces from Allen’s collection will be offered at auction on Thursday.

Johanna Flaum, the vice-chairman of 20th and 21st Century Art at Christie’s, said last month, “I think this is a sale that sort of exhausts superlatives. This is… the most valuable collection ever sold at auction. It’s really a once-in-a-generation type of event. The collection is quite wide-ranging, it really makes Paul Allen a unique collector in that sense.”

No wonder Allen’s collection beat all the odds now ranking as the most extensive art sale in the history of auctioning.

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