An art critic’s perspective on the billion-dollar auction of Paul Allen’s collection
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The late Microsoft founder Paul Allen was known for his tech achievements, philanthropy and his ownership of sports franchises. But he also liked a nice picture.
A part of his collection of paintings and sculptures sold over the course of a two-day auction that wrapped up yesterday at Christie’s. It smashed the record for most expensive collection ever sold at auction – all told, the collection sold for $1.62 billion. But is this the way Allen himself wanted his collection disbursed? Art critic Blake Gopnik is writing about Allen this week for the New York Times.
“What really surprised me about this auction is that judging from our conversation 10 years ago, he sounded like he really wanted these things to end up in museums,” Gopnik said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio. “He told me how important museums were to him as a child. And then he talked about how important was to give back by putting your works on show.”
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: This collection is not dreck. There’s some fine things in this!
Blake Gopnik: That is the understatement of the year. They are officially masterpieces, you know, they just went for over $100 million each. An amazing Georges Seurat, a great Cezanne, a beautiful Van Gogh, a stunning Botticelli, you name it, and it was in the show.
Brancaccio: And before we get more into Paul Allen, the man and his relationship to this art, it is interesting to know with the results of these auctions that despite inflation, despite talk of recession next year, at least one segment of the economy is doing all right.
Gopnik: Yeah. But you know, the funny thing, David, is that lots of people are kind of automatically celebrating this an auction that went from more than $1.5 billion — that’s billion with a B. But I’m actually kind of sad about it. I don’t think there’s that much to celebrate because all of these incredibly rich people buying these works means that they’re actually being taken out of public hands, right? You know, there were thousands of people lined up in front of Christie’s Auction House in New York to see these works before they were sold. And that’s because I think the public realized that they better see them now because these masterpieces were going to end up on yachts or in private museums for a good while.
Brancaccio: And Paul Allen himself, one of the founders of Microsoft, philanthropist, and many people know him for his ownership of sports franchises, is no longer with us. He passed away in 2018. But you had occasion in the past to to meet him?
Gopnik: Yeah, exactly 10 years ago this fall, he and I had a nice chat about art, which wasn’t something I think that he had a chance to do all that often. I went up to Seattle to talk to him. And you know, what really surprised me about this auction is that judging from our conversation 10 years ago, he sounded like he really wanted these things to end up in museums. He told me how important museums were to him as a child. And then he talked about how important was to give back by putting your works on show. He wanted the public to see these works. So I was actually a little surprised that they ended up at a at a private auction or they ended up at auction and now they’re going to be in private hands.
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