Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, was strongly attracted to landscapes as “a way of looking outward,” which may be why he felt moved to spend more than $40 million on Gustav Klimt’s 1903 autumnal oil, “Birch Forest,” in 2006.
“I’m always trying to figure out where the future’s going,” Allen said in an interview for the 2016 exhibition “Seeing Nature,” which featured works from his blue-chip collection. “So maybe that’s why I find landscapes interesting. It’s as if they are windows onto different realities. In the Klimt, you can feel the stillness and the calmness and the eternal nature of a forest. Or you can have an artist trying to capture a volcanic eruption, which is not still at all.
“When you look at a painting,” Allen continued, “you’re looking into a different country, into someone else’s imagination, how they saw it.”
The Klimt is one of more than 150 artworks from Allen’s estate that will be sold at Christie’s on Nov. 9 and 10 in an auction valued at more than $1 billion (with the proceeds going to philanthropy, as Allen directed). While the sale was announced in August, now, for the first time, the auction house has begun to divulge what those treasures are.
Aside from the occasional leak of information, regular grasping at clues and the rare outright announcement, the identities of buyers behind big art purchases typically remain confidential. For reasons of discretion or security, most collectors prefer not to disclose what they have.
Even when the cloak of secrecy is finally removed, rarely does it reveal a collection as varied and expansive as Allen’s, reaching across 500 years of art history.
“He is this generation’s Albert Barnes or Norton Simon,” said Marc Porter, the chairperson of Christie’s Americas, referring to two historically important collectors. “It’s now becoming more fashionable for people to start to collect outside of the boundaries of a very narrowly defined ethic. He broke that broadly and often.”
The inventory shows not only that Allen — who died in 2018, at age 65 — scored some obvious blockbusters, like the Klimt, which is estimated to sell for more than $90 million, or Georges Seurat’s “Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version),” in excess of $100 million. He also collected works by women, such as an untitled Agnes Martin from 1999-2000 (estimated at $4 million to $6 million); Louise Bourgeois’ “Black Flames” ($1.5 million to $2.5 million); and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “White Rose with Larkspur No. 1” ($6 million to $8 million).
What united Allen’s eclectic trove, those who know him say, was his passion for each artwork. He was choosing these pieces himself, not delegating that decision to art advisers. Allen knew firsthand that art could be a lucrative investment — in 2016 he sold Gerhard Richter’s painting of an American fighter jet for $25.6 million, more than double the $11.2 million he paid a decade before, and in 2014, he sold a Mark Rothko painting for $56.2 million, for which he had paid $34.2 million in 2007.
But he was primarily driven by strong aesthetic responses and historic appreciation — “the way a work came together, what physical and emotional experience it provoked,” said Pablo Schugurensky, who served as the director of art collections for Vulcan Inc., Allen’s investment company, from 1998 to 2005.
“It was a personal collection,” Schugurensky added. “He knew what was in it and he knew why he had acquired it. He enjoyed living with art and visiting it.”
Jody Allen, the executor of her brother’s estate, said she and Paul grew up in a creative household — their father was a librarian, their mother a teacher. “Paul and I both devoured books,” Jody said in answers to emailed questions. “We were encouraged to exercise our creative muscle from an early age, and Paul especially loved music and art as forms of expression and depictions of the world around us.”
In the interview for the “Nature” show — conducted by Mary Ann Prior, director of Vulcan’s art collections from 2014 to 2016 — Allen recalled being drawn to making and looking at art as a child. “We had a book about Picasso, late in life, doing ceramics, painting, constructing funny hats out of paper for the kids who were around, and making sculptures,” he said. “I remember looking at that book for hours as a kid, being fascinated by it.
“My parents very much encouraged me to try to create my own art,” he went on. “I used to draw continually, and my mother saved all my pencil drawings. Most of those have to do with rockets and robots and other kinds of scientific apparatus,” he added. “And then, at some point, they encouraged me to try watercolors, which I did a little bit, and oil painting. I can’t tell you I was a natural, but I was decent.”
Allen described how his father read the newspaper after work under the family’s print of a king holding a flower by Georges Rouault, and was fascinated by Chinese and Japanese ceramics. (“He would take a vase and turn it in his hands and just look at it for 10 minutes.”) He remembered how his parents collected work by modern artists associated with the University of Washington, including Boyer Gonzales, Ambrose Patterson, Viola Patterson and Walter F. Isaacs.
On a trip to London in the early 1980s, Allen visited the Tate, where he saw his first Roy Lichtenstein, John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” (1851-52) and works by Monet. He was also influenced by his friends, including the media mogul David Geffen, himself an avid collector.
“It’s great to make a pilgrimage to museums, but after a while you start wondering what it would be like to live with amazing pieces,” Allen told Prior. “It was David who basically said, ‘Look how I’m living with these pictures around me.’ That made me think, ‘Wow, that’s possible.’”
Having always been drawn to the Impressionists, Allen’s first major purchase was Monet’s “Water Lily Pond” (1919). He then brought to collecting the inquisitiveness that fueled his other endeavors, including software, education, music, sports teams and diving. Allen branched out from Impressionism into African art, Aboriginal art and art from New Guinea. He built an extensive collection of antiquities — glass, ceramics and sculpture. He amassed items from pop culture, science fiction, costume history and military history.
Allen constantly wanted to educate himself, to discover talent and content.
“It could be by Antony Gormley, it could be by Eric Fischl,” Allen said. “I love David Hockney’s work, although now he’s probably more famous for his work in the 1960s and ’70s, but I love his later works as well.”
To some extent, Allen brought a businessman’s rationality to his collecting, assessing whether a painting was likely to appreciate. Other times, his heart led the way.
“There’s the aspect of collecting that becomes almost compulsive,” he said in the “Nature” interview, recounting how he chased “a jewel of a painting” by O’Keeffe: “l’d been wanting for years to get a landscape by her.”
“Years ago there was a van Gogh self-portrait that he supposedly painted for his mother, and the bid price just got too high — I think it was something above $75 million,” he continued. “Now it’s probably worth far more than that, but you have to be very careful not to get caught up in a bidding war.”
Allen said part of Impressionism’s appeal, for him, was related to his technology background. “I’m attracted to things like pointillism or a Jasper Johns ‘numbers’ work because they come out of breaking something down into its components, like bytes or numbers,” Allen said, “but in a different kind of language.”
At the same time, Allen was not drawn to digital art, seeing it as something that looked “almost too perfect.”
Allen regularly lent his works to museums and gallery shows to share his enjoyment with a broader public. “Sometimes when you live with art, you stop seeing it in the way that someone fresh to it sees it,” he said. “l want to be able to give people the same kind of eye-opening experience l had when l first went to the Tate over 30 years ago.”
Often impresarios like Allen end up isolated by their quirky combination of skills and their outsize success. Allen — who died of complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — seemed to personally commune with his paintings, as if they were keeping him company.
“Each artist has his own unique view of reality that has to do with his inner state and his inner eye, so he brings you to seeing the world the way he saw it,” Allen said in his interview. “The way he’s trying to express it could be mysterious or enigmatic or elusive. Or it could be celebrating the beauty of certain scenes or the chaotic nature of things, the strange nature of things.”
CORRECTION: An early version of this story misnamed the art collector Albert Barnes.
Below are some of Paul Allen’s exceptional paintings, with descriptions informed by Max Carter, a Christie’s vice chairman.
— Jan Brueghel the Younger, “The Five Senses”: Five separate pictures by the Flemish Baroque artist made during the 17th century (and sold as one lot, estimated at $4 million to $6 million), they are considered the highest quality works by this artist, according to Christie’s. This group set the world record price for Brueghel the Younger in 2001 ($3.8 million).
— Lucian Freud, “Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau)”: Estimated above $75 million, this is a snapshot of Freud’s world, and a portrait of the act of looking at it, with “every inch of its surface animated by the raw, piercing scrutiny of the artist’s gaze,” Carter said. It was inspired by Watteau’s “Pierrot Content” (circa 1712).
— Jasper Johns, “Map”: Marking the genesis of Johns’ important maps series, this printed paper map showing state boundaries and their abbreviations (estimated at $5 million to $7 million) has been overpainted with energetic brush strokes in shades of gray. “Dissolving the familiar rigidity of the state boundaries in this way prompts questions about how these borders are demarcated,” a Christie’s expert said, “and what historical, political, social, economic and geographical factors go into creating the familiar patchwork of states we know today.”
— Gustav Klimt, “Birch Forest”: This masterwork, estimated at more than $90 million, was featured in the 1903 “Secession,” Klimt’s first-ever one-man show. It has been owned by Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only portrait subject Klimt would paint twice). Allen acquired it for the then-record price of $40 million at Christie’s in 2006.
— Georgia O’Keeffe, “White Rose with Larkspur No. 1”: An example of O’Keeffe’s archetypical subject on a rare large scale, this is the largest flower painting to appear at auction since O’Keeffe’s $44 million record in 2014. “White Rose with Larkspur No. 2” hung in O’Keeffe’s bedroom before being acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
— Georges Seurat, “Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version)”: One of the rarest paintings in private hands in the category, estimated at more than $100 million, this pointillist work was owned by Alphonse Kann, the collector who was one of the inspirations for Marcel Proust’s character Charles Swann; John Quinn, the avant-garde champion who organized the 1913 Armory Show; and Henry P. McIlhenny, the Philadelphia collector.
— Vincent van Gogh, “Verger avec cyprès”: Painted in Arles in 1888, from the important series of 14 orchard paintings by van Gogh, it is one of only five remaining in private hands and is estimated at more than $100 million. This work has rarely been seen in public during the past 60 years.