Circle of billionaire art collectors as Megabucks masterpieces head to auction


It is said that the pillars of the art market boil down to the three Ds: death, divorce or debt. It is in these dramatic instances of transition, financial peril, or both that lifelong collectors are most motivated to unload their wares, and when they do, the results can be dramatic.

In May, Sotheby’s scored a huge win with the Macklowe Collection auction, a sale made possible by property developer Harry Macklowe’s blowout split from his wife, Linda. The Macklowes, who did not have a prenuptial agreement, had been married for nearly 60 years and their divorce was bitter: Linda’s legal team claimed her ex, who also shelled out for her Park Avenue apartment French mistress, hadn’t paid taxes since the 1980s.

Bolstered by the sale of just 65 lots, including a $61 million Pollock and a $48 million Rothko, the Macklowe collection became the most expensive ever sold at auction: in total, Sotheby’s achieved sales of 922, $2 million. “This sale will go down in history as one of the defining moments of the art market,” Sotheby’s CEO Charles Stewart said at the time.

Macklowe’s divorce also produced some hilariously messy rich person behavior. Years before the sale, Harry Macklowe paid for 42-foot-tall billboards in Times Square featuring his faces and those of his mistress-turned-wife Patricia Landeau. If that doesn’t send a message, I don’t know what is.

When major art auctions such as Macklowe’s Unloading loom on the horizon, it’s almost guaranteed that the world’s wealthiest and most discerning collectors will be ready to descend on the goods with equal focus and how much financial power they can muster. Whether with the help of in-house auction specialists or independent art advisors, worthwhile acquisitions are anticipated, which means the blue bloods of the art world are starting to get extremely hot.

In November, Christie’s offers “Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection,” a compilation of over 150 works from the late Microsoft co-founder’s estate, and the treasures listed are a doozy: Gustav Klimt birch forestan autumnal landscape from 1903 estimated at more than 90 million dollars is up for grabs, as is a landscape by Paul Cézanne whose sale is estimated at nearly 100 million dollars.

Birch Forest, 1903, by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918).

From Agostini/Getty

In total, the auction is expected to fetch an unprecedented billion dollars, which would crush the record set earlier this year by the Macklowe collection and become a huge feather in Christie’s hat. With these kinds of goodies dangling before them, deep-pocketed shoppers are ready to fall over themselves in order to get in on the action.

As far as Cézanne is concerned, the buyer who could win the first Allen prize may not be an individual at all. In 2012, as part of an attempt to make the nation an international center for the arts, Qatar spent more than $250 million to Card players. More recently, Cézanne’s 1895 play The meadow sold for $41.7 million at Sotheby’s after being alienated by the Toledo Museums of Art in Ohio, but its buyer has not been revealed.

It’s unclear whether the Allen collection will break the auction record for American artists, as the collage by Jasper Johns (an American artist, obviously) offered for sale is estimated to be worth around $50 million. However, it seems likely that Jasper Johns’ personal auction record will almost certainly be erased, as the most a work by Johns has ever sold at auction in the past was $36 million in 2014.

In October, Christie’s also offers “The Ann & Gordon Getty Collection”, an incredibly large sale of nearly 1,500 works of fine and decorative art from the couple’s home. Gordon Getty is the son of billionaire oil baron J. Paul Getty, while Ann, who died in 2020, was grande dame of their San Francisco mansion, which she filled with 18th-century Chinese wallpaper and chandeliers sumptuous.

This summer, Sotheby’s also launched its first auction in Singapore in 15 years, heralding the rise of the art market in Southeast Asia; other flagship auctions in the region are sure to follow.

The fall, the eyes are particularly trained on objects like 18th century painting Entrance to the Grand Canal to the East by Canaletto from the Getty collection, as well as a superlative painting by Gerhard Richter offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong that is expected to sell for a top estimate of HK$235 million (about US$30 million).

“Many of these collectors don’t need these works of art, they just have to have them.”

— Matthew Capasso

“These are cultural trophies, and it really becomes a sort of pissing contest,” Matthew Capasso, director of Gurr Johns Capital, an independent art consultancy and art lending firm, told The Daily Beast. “A lot of these collectors don’t need these works of art, they just have to have them. It’s something they put on their metaphorical coat, which is really their third ski home in Gstaad. They can say, “I got the Seurat from the Allen sale,” and all his buddies in Davos or elsewhere can say, “Oh, that’s cool. » »

Typically, mega-collectors interested in multimillion-dollar paintings aren’t on the auction house floor when the auction takes place. An agent handles the auction paddle for them, or they speak directly to an auction house employee who is on the phone with them during the sale. Depending on the instructions of the buyer, the auction house employees will intervene with offers or abstain if the price becomes too high. Still other bidders choose to place their bets online, where anonymity is even more aggressively assured.

“The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Looking East with Santa Maria della Salute”, by Canaletto.

Carl Court/AFP via Getty

The highest price achieved for an American work of art at auction was set in May when Christie’s sold Warhol’s Blow Sage Blue Marilyn for around $195 million. This treasure was salvaged by mega-gallery scion Larry Gagosian, who previously sold this same work in 1986. Gagosian is as big a buyer as he is a seller – his personal collection includes everyone from Cy Twombly to Jeff Koons – so you can almost always count on him to be represented on the auction floor.

Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, artist and curator, runs the wildly popular art world insider Instagram account @jerrygogosian; in a case where the reviewer became an institution-validated likemaker, Helphenstein hosted “Suggested Followers: How the Algorithm Is Always Right,” an upcoming digital sale in partnership with Sotheby’s.

“They are invested, they are hungry and they have the money for it and they want it. We should not underestimate them at all.”

— Hilde Lynn Helphenstein

As for the buyers who will compete, Helphenstein said that estates affiliated with artists featured in the auction and US multi-millionaires will still have a good chance of winning their prizes. But “right now, as of today, the Asian market art market is financially stronger than the European market,” Helphenstein told The Daily Beast.

“A global art adviser with offices in New York and Hong Kong told me that the collectors I work with now in Asia are like the collectors I worked with 20 years ago in New York,” Helphenstein said. at the Daily Beast. “They are invested, they are hungry and they have the money for it and they want it. We should not underestimate them at all.

Indeed, Asian buyers accounted for 31% of Christie’s total sales in 2021, and Asian buyers bought or bid on 46% of Sotheby’s lots that ended up selling for more than $5 million, Bloomberg reported in January.

Among those most high-profile buyers are billionaire Pierre Chen, who amassed an outstanding collection over the decades and sold his $11.4 million wine collection to Sotheby’s in 2021, and Adrian Cheng, a Hong-based developer Kong who is one of the youngest billionaires in the world. . But you can also expect Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Marc Andreessen and luxury titans like Bernard Arnault and Gustavos A. Cisneros to be on board, due to their enthusiastic and frequent participation in the market.

“In recent seasons, in terms of collecting masterpieces, Asia can represent between 25 and 50 percent of the sale of a masterpiece,” said Max Carter, vice president for the 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s, the Daily Beast. “There’s a lot of interest in some old masters in Asia. But then Asian audiences also reacted to the great American artists, the greatest Impressionists and the artists of the early post-war period, all represented [in the Paul Allen sale]. So we will send a strong group of masterpieces to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taiwan to make sure we cater to this audience.

Once pieces are acquired at auction, a number of things can happen to the art. It could be immediately incorporated into a private collection and put on display, locked away for decades in someone’s personal storage hatch, transferred to a museum, or used as bargaining chip in an even larger transaction. But the general public has restricted access to this information on purpose – which is why it’s such an event when certain paintings resurface at auction after being hidden from the world for decades. The very rich are also very, very private.

The art world coexists with the world around it in some ways and not in others. Rising inflation and rising interest rates mean that, for most collectors of paintings they might want to part with, “it’s not the best time to get people to sell art really , really important,” Benjamin Godsill, an auction house specialist and private arts adviser, told The Daily Beast.

“But for something like the Paul Allen sale, it doesn’t matter what the real economy is doing on the ground, when there are opportunities to buy special images that are probably unique or close, people who can afford will probably still want to stretch for that job because it might be their only chance to do it,” Godsill said.

That’s the appeal of the no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all auction environment: there are winners and there are losers, and generally people understand that, Godsill said.

“In terms of how relationships are affected, it’s definitely something that comes into play as to whether or not you’re offered work from exposure that’s in demand in the primary market,” Godsill said. “I will definitely get angry at galleries that don’t give me and my clients the chance to acquire something, even if it’s in high demand, whereas with an auction house, it is what it is. This is the unfettered raw market.


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