Aoife Rosenmeyer, 16.01.2023

Auctiontalk: What does Visionary mean?

Different spheres of journalism generally trundle along separate paths: culture, sports, technology and business, say, keep to their own domains. Exceptionally, the November 2022 auction of the late tech billionaire Paul G. Allen’s art collection made news across the field. It was trailed in advance like a major sporting event or a major box-office film: before and after the event, the New York auction had the business and art market press scrabbling to find adjectives adequate to their task.

Paul Allen incorporated the tech capitalist dream, having started out in a nascent computing field, co-founded Microsoft in his early twenties and become a billionaire within a decade. Christies, who held the auction, named it «Visionary» – the collector a foresighted IT developer, his collection, which he amassed voraciously, in part literally focussing on innovations in perspective and how artists visualise their subjects. From September 2022 until the auction on the 9 and 10 November, Christies published several promotional articles which married Allen’s relatively recent technological innovation with the artistic endeavours to be found in the collection. They celebrated the non-conformist, the curious, the avid explorer with wide-ranging pursuits, who challenged the status quo, had a visionary perspective, a trailblazer, forward-thinking, re-establishing tradition, revolutionary, with originality, daring, radical advancement, transforming a genre, exploring knowledge outside his realm, seeking truths, defying limitations – did this apply to the artist or the collector? No matter, as long as it was an ode to innovation and discovery. Oh, and the money.

Even before the 9 November it was known that the auction would break the $1 billion mark thanks to the calibre of the works of art and their rarity, not to mention the price guarantees Christies had given Allen’s estate. A Forbes (1) article prior to the sale reported this, devoting its opening paragraphs to The Rivals by Diego Riviera, which had reached the highest price to date for a Latin American artist in the then most successful auction ever in 2018 (a mere $835 million), and now was to be sold once again (2) from the estate of its in 2018 unknown buyer. But lest the inflationary zeal becomes distasteful, please note that the proceeds of the Allen sale are to be «dedicated to philanthropy», though the specifics are not public.

Given the opportunity to view rarely-seen works, artnet reported that 20’000 people visited Christies Rockerfeller Center venue during the 10-day public viewing, not to mention those who experienced the virtual tour online – but the real theatre was when the auction was live streamed. Christies had lined up audiences on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Youtube as well as their own website. In the office where I worked during the first auction, a colleague had the livestream open and our work that afternoon (CET) was accompanied by recurring crescendos, oohs and aah, as lot after lot was sold.

A few selected clips remain online of both auction sessions. The room, and thus the buyers present there, (according to artnet «Comedian Steve Martin, megadealer Larry Gagosian, former auction rainmaker Amy Cappellazzo, and others packed into the salesroom») is in low light, providing background sound effects and hands to hold phones aloft to record important moments.

This shade heightens the impact of spotlights picking out the given auctioneer and the bank of Christies staff on the phone to absentee bidders. Ultimately – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sums involved – these avatars are the key characters on screen. In the distillation of the event to a few minutes’ content, several of the highly qualified smooth operators (Chairmen and Women, Presidents, Vice Presidents) are reduced to gurning bystanders or handsome décor, while their peers shine. (And indeed who is to say how many silent phones are clapped to ears.)

Expressions of choice among the auction house professionals are icy reserve, calm or bright-eyed engagement. Salome Tan Bo and Maria Los are among those who slug it out for an Alexander Calder but are pipped by an unknown (to online viewers) in-room buyer.

The blockbuster Seurat Poseuses sale is noisier, with proxy bidders shouting out their million-dollar bids. Its hottest action is between two figures with only one colleague between them, though the Instagram crop hides their proximity and hones in on each. Xin Li, Deputy Chairman, Asia Pacific, will ultimately prevail for her client. Xin’s career(s) to date have been impressive. It’s perhaps time for the highly informative website Wag Center to draft an entry for her husband, Lyor Cohen.

(1) The first item on the hamburger menu on is ‘Billionaires’, second is ‘Innovation’
(2) It went for $4 million or so more this time, $14,130,000