Inside the $1.5 Billion Paul Allen Sale, the Most Expensive Art Auction of All Time

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“Honestly, no one who loves art walks into this room and is not happier just for a moment,” he said. “That gives me hope—that there will be someone of these thousands of people that walks through the galleries and says, ‘I want to buy it.’”

Holding a sale the day after an election is always a risk. But tech layoffs and a dipping Dow aside, the art-market worrywarts seemed to see their spirits brighten as the election essentially retained the status quo. At Lodi, Ignacio Mattos’s Rock Center trattoria, those having presale cocktails and spuntino said that they were expecting a few bangs. Inside the saleroom, the mood did seem borderline jubilant, as former Sotheby’s rainmaker Tobias Meyer bro-hugged collector Tico Mugrabi in the aisle next to Larry Gagosian and his team held court. Steve Martin, the actor and collector, took a seat near the center of the room, as mega-dealers such as Per Skarstedt and Amy Cappellazzo took their normal perches. Instead of the customary classical tunes that precede the auctions at Christie’s, the hi-fi blasted Hendrix, a nod to Allen’s heart of rock and roll.

“Taken together, this auction will be the most successful in Christie’s history,” Adrien Meyer noted before he began his auctioneering. Once he started gaveling, the bidding came fast and furious, shooting the hammer prices well above the high estimates. Dallas-based specialist Capera Ryan bagged an Edward Steichen photograph of the Flatiron building for $11.8 million, just shy of the world record for a photo. The adviser Deb Robinson of Art Market Advisors bought, on behalf of a client, a Georgia O’Keeffe for nearly $27 million, well above the high estimate of $8 million. A Gauguin Tahiti scene, a sister painting to one hanging in the Hermitage, sold to Christie’s specialist Maria Los’s client for $105.7 million.

And then Xin Li beat out her fellow Christie’s specialists to win the most enviable Seurat in private hands for $149 million, making it the biggest sale of the evening.

What’s remarkable is that the sale could have been even bigger—several works from the Allen collection were not included for the sale, held back by the family to either keep or sell at a later date. (All the proceeds from the sale will be donated to charities, though what charities exactly have not been announced.) That record-breaking Monet grainstack painting that Allen bought for $81.4 million? Not in this sale, alas. Neither was Roy Lichtenstein’s The Kiss, which Allen bought from David Geffen. (Allen was an investor in Geffen’s DreamWorks, and the two convinced Lichtenstein to design the studio’s logo.) He also had a Rothko that the writer Blake Gopnik casually valued at $80 million a decade ago, Renoir’s The Reader, and Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, a water lily painting that was one of Allen’s first major acquisitions. None were in the sale. The held-back lots could have arguably brought the auction into the two-billion-plus range.

“This was not like all of the collection of Paul Allen, it was just the part that was, you know, in different houses,” Rotter said. “I don’t know what’s happening with them, a different person owns them now and maybe they’ll come for sale. Maybe they won’t come for sale. But so far, none of the people that tell me what he doesn’t sell can get it out of him.”

Perhaps having the most expensive sale of all time was more than enough. As the final lots went, collectors left for their dinner reservations, certainly a bit late but not cranky, giddy at the prospect of a strong art market even amidst, well, everything else. And having spent the auction monitoring his specialists and sending in another auctioneer to close out the proceedings, Guillaume Cerutti sat quietly by the entrance to the sale room. The CEO was already thinking about next week, when the house he runs has another billion dollars of art to offload.

“What a night, what an exciting night—but it’s not over yet,” he said.

The Rundown

Your crib sheet for comings and goings in the art world this week and beyond…

…The LACMA Art+Film Gala—is it the West Coast Met Gala? The Oscars of the art world? It’s certainly a gale-force black-tie Hollywood soiree, and last Saturday, Leonardo DiCaprio and Eva Chow once again hosted the fundraiser for the encyclopedic Tinseltown museum that picks a luminary from each of its two titular worlds to celebrate with the spotlight for a night. This year’s honorees were hero light-and-space artist Helen Pashgian and the filmmaker Park Chan-wook, and the proceedings helped the fundraiser net more than $5 million for the museum, which is about halfway done with its extensive rebuilding process that will cost upward of $750 million. Why is the gala different from all others? Well, it’s in the name—we’re talking art and film, people. Gucci, the presenter of the event, dressed Andrew Garfield and Olivia Wilde, but also Mark Bradford and Catherine Opie. Flashbulbs popped for Kim Kardashian and assorted Kardashian-Jenners, and the newly Oscar-less Sean Penn was there, and Addison Rae dutifully captioned her arrival pic “@lacma”—but a good chunk of the 650-strong gala-going crew were the artists, such as Jonas Wood, Shio Kusaka, Jordan Wolfson, Louise Bonnet, Alex Hubbard, Lauren Halsey, Charles Gaines, Tacita Dean, Alex Israel, Betye Saar, Martine Syms, and so many more. But, okay, sure, everyone was upstaged by Billie Eilish’s art-benefit boyfriend reveal, with both she and Jesse Rutherford in matching Gucci pajamas.

…It seems like there’s a new member’s club opening up in Manhattan each week, but none have quite the patina of exclusivity like newly opened London import Casa Cruz—the spot doesn’t accept members, it accepts investors, and the level of entry begins at $250,000. While several of the restaurants at the six-story converted beaux arts mansion are open to the public (if you can get a res) the rooftop and fourth floor are reserved for investors and their guests. Except for last Thursday, when Gagosian took over the coveted private real estate to celebrate Anna Weyant’s first show at the gallery with dinner at the rooftop that has the highest cost of admission in the city. The show has been hotly anticipated by a collector class who have watched Weyant’s paintings sell for as much as $1.6 million at auction. She’s also dating Larry Gagosian, the founder of the gallery. All that takes a backseat to the show, which is anchored by seven paintings, including Two Eileens (2022), a lush, masterful double portrait of the downtown micro-celebrity and podcast host Eileen Kelly. The place is quite posh, and walking up the spiral staircase to this cabana-style bar by the upstairs room, I bumped into Kelly, who was standing between the artist Stanley Whitney and the writer Emma Cline, and after saying hello to Gagosian, I was introduced to none other than Venus Williams. After one meal I’d say, yeah, Casa Cruz rooftop access… probably worth the quarter-mil?

…We hear that in the new show of Ronald Lauder’s personal collection that opens tomorrow at his Neue Galerie, there’s an entire room stuffed with memorabilia related to the classic 1942 film Casablanca. In addition to snapping up German and Austrian masterpieces of the art nouveau era—including Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which he bought for $135 million in 2006—he’s apparently spent a whole lot of time buying posters from the original release and props from the set of the Bogart-Bergman classic, including the letters of transit that Rick found so darn tricky to obtain for Ilsa in the film. Hopefully all this cool Casablanca stuff can cheer up Ron after he plowed all that money into Lee Zeldin’s campaign.

Rashid Johnson and other artists have each donated a work to be sold at Christie’s next week during its spree of auctions to benefit the Right of Return Fellowship, a charity started by the artists Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig that helps formerly incarcerated people support their creative or artistic pursuits. Johnson’s Surrender Painting “Sunshine” is estimated to bring in $600,000 to $800,000, while a photograph by Mickalene Thomas could bring in $200,000 to $300,000.

Scene Report: The Art Show

One could be excused for being done with art fairs for a bit, what with the extended jaunts through London and Paris, and maybe even Toronto and Torino—maybe let’s chill for a second, at least until Miami? Not so fast. Early November happens to bring to the Big Apple a nice little fair called the Art Show, presented by the Art Dealers Association of America. Even the bloodthirsty gallery circuit has its nonprofit bureaucracies, and the ADAA has been around since 1962, trying to keep the art market honest by promoting “the highest standards of connoisseurship, scholarship, and ethical practice within the profession.”

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