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How Paul Allen built one of the greatest private art collections

Katya Kazakina

Bloomberg

| Thu, October 18, 2018 | 05:06 am
How Paul Allen built one of the greatest private art collections

Seattle Seahawks team owner, philanthropist, investor, innovator and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen attends the FAM 1st FAMILY FOUNDATION Charity Event at The Edgewater Hotel on December 14, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (AFP/Mat Hayward)

Two months before the first public exhibition of Paul Allen’s art collection, the curator found himself inside the billionaire’s box at the Super Bowl XL in 2006, rooting for his team.

While the Seattle Seahawks lost, the after-party was a riot, with Allen jamming on guitar and actor Dan Aykroyd accompanying him on harmonica.

“We rocked till 2 or 3 in the morning,” the curator, Paul Tucker, said Tuesday, a day after Allen’s death at age 65. “It was my gift before the show opened.”

Tucker, an art scholar who played football in college, said he doesn’t know what will become of the collection, a vast trove that spans centuries from antiquities to contemporary art and that may be worth more than $1 billion, according to people who are familiar with it.

Allen, who co-founded Microsoft Corp. with Bill Gates and was the world’s 27th-richest person at the time of his death, was driven by passion and curiosity.

“He wanted to be challenged,” said Tucker, 68, who worked closely with Allen and his sister Jody on the show “DoubleTake,” which paired Impressionist works from the collection with Old Masters, modern and contemporary pieces. “That’s why he ranged so broadly across time. He wanted to have a lot of voices in this choir.”

The exhibition paired a small Renoir portrait of a woman reading a book with a large Roy Lichtenstein painting that depicts a pilot embracing a blond bombshell. Claude Monet’s painting of a cathedral in Rouen was matched with Jasper Johns’s aluminum “Numbers.” Paul Gauguin’s brilliant 1899 Tahiti scene “Maternity (II)” is coupled with Kenji Yanobe’s 1998 photograph of two people in yellow space suits climbing a steep hill.

Tucker, who was free to select any works from the collection, said the overarching aim was to restore Impressionism’s “radical edge and allow people to understand how aggressive, novel and offensive the work was, how it altered the way people perceive art.”

One work by Georges Seurat, “The Models” ( 1888 ), is considered by dealers to be one of the most important of his works left in private hands. It’s a painting within a painting, showing three nude models and the artist’s famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in the background.

“He collected for enjoyment,” said Pablo Schugurensky, who presided over a significant expansion of Allen’s trove as his director of art collections from 1998 to 2005. “He was extremely curious about all periods and all things.”

Allen knew what he wanted and was ambitious about collecting, Schugurensky said. “He would always try to find out what the proper top bid would be. Sometimes he would go out of the range because the piece was so important.”

Read also: Microsoft co-founder, investor, philanthropist Allen dead at 65

A lover of Monet, Allen was the anonymous buyer of the French painter’s 1891 canvas of a haystack for $81.4 million, then an auction record, at Christie’s in 2016, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the transaction was private. The bidding war lasted 14 minutes.

“To live with these pieces of art is truly amazing,” Allen told Bloomberg in 2015. “I feel that you should share some of the works to give the public a chance to see them.”

That year, he sent a group of works from his collection on a touring exhibition, “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” which included pieces by Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Gustav Klimt.

Allen also played an integral role championing Seattle and regional artists. Vulcan Inc., the investment firm that manages his business and charitable interests, co-produced the Seattle Art Fair, which brought the world’s top galleries to his hometown. Vulcan has commissioned more than 20 public artworks in Seattle, according to its website, and its staff included 15 art experts.

“The family office was extremely professional and meticulous,” said Jean-Paul Engelen, co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at Phillips, where Allen sold some works. “They made certain that he was looked after.”

Allen wasn’t averse to taking advantage when art prices skyrocketed. In 2016, a day before he bought Monet’s haystack, he sold a painting of a war jet by Gerhard Richter for $25.6 million, more than double what he paid for it a decade earlier. In 2014, he sold one of his Rothkos for $56.2 million after acquiring it in 2007 for $34.2 million.

Allen told Bloomberg in the 2015 interview that he sells in order to purchase something else. Buying art turned out to be “a very, very good investment for me,” he said then. “I didn’t go into it thinking this way. I thought some of the prices were very substantial when I bought them. But the market has been on such a tear.”

Still, art “wasn’t just holdings,” Schugurensky, Allen’s former adviser, said of the billionaire’s approach to collecting. “It was something he enjoyed looking at and sharing. It wasn’t collecting trophies. He was buying artworks that touched him.”

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