SEATTLE—In an art world that prizes discretion but loves a good mystery, the collecting of billionaire Paul Allen has long been the subject of rumor and speculation. Now, with the recent announcement of an upcoming exhibition of 28 works from Allen’s collection, there is a surprise opportunity—not just to find out more about the art chosen by the famously private Microsoft cofounder but also to view it.
The first public display of art from the Paul Allen Family Collection is scheduled to open in Seattle in April 2006 for a six-month run at the Experience Music Project (EMP), the Frank Gehry-designed music museum founded by Allen in 2000.
Entitled “DoubleTake,” the exhibition will introduce part of Allen’s collection as a series of pairings that join a classic Impressionist or Post-Impressionist work and a modern or contemporary piece—with an eye to eliciting the edginess each has had in its own era. The exhibition is curated by art historian Paul Hayes Tucker, a much-published authority on Impressionism in general and Claude Monet in particular.
The EMP was selected as the venue for the show not just because of its connection with Allen but also as a reflection of his desire to introduce the art in a nontraditional way in the hope of involving a broader audience.
The initial public announcement of the exhibition—which was filtered through multiple layers of spokespersons—identified only four of the 28 paintings to be shown. The names of the rest, it was promised, would be released early in 2006.
However, in an in-depth conversation about the show, Tucker was able to tell ARTnewsletter about four more pieces. A glimpse is now available of at least a fraction of the Allen collection—by name, by curatorial juxtaposition, by provenance (provided by Tucker or by an Allen representative) and in some cases by auction records. Note, however, that the publicly available auction prices do not necessarily represent Allen’s purchase of the works or the dates he bought them; in at least some cases there have been intermediate transactions. Allen remains a staunchly anonymous buyer.
Tucker calls Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: Afternoon Effect, 1894, a great example (and one of the very few in private hands) among Monet’s cathedral paintings, 11 of which Tucker assembled for the 1990 exhibition “Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings.”
“If I had been able to get my curatorial hands on that picture, you can bet it would have been in the show,” he says. In the early 1920s, Tucker says, the Monet was in the Kojiro Matsukata collection, much of which later formed the core holdings of Japan’s National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.
Records indicate that the Monet last appeared at auction in 1995 at Christie’s London selling for $12.18 million. Says one auction expert: “It has probably doubled in value since.”
For this exhibition the Monet’s painted surface of light and shadow is matched with what Tucker calls the “particularly light-sensitive” physical texture of a Jasper Johns cast-metal wall piece called Numbers—a 57-by-43-inch sculpture embossed with a consecutive arrangement of the numbers 1-10 that was conceived in 1963 and cast in 1978. It was last shown in 1996 at The Menil Collection, Houston, in an exhibition entitled “Jasper Johns: The Sculptures.” Before its purchase by Paul Allen, it had been in the collection of the artist, according to an Allen spokesperson.
The second set of Allen-owned paintings is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1877 La Liseuse, which will be juxtaposed with Roy Lichtenstein’s much larger 1962 work The Kiss. Acknowledged by many as a very important picture from a key period, Renoir’s painting, of a woman raptly reading a book, has a background clearly divided by light and dark, as does the Lichtenstein painting—of a woman raptly absorbed with a man—notes Tucker.
According to auction records, La Liseuse has appeared at auction twice over the past few decades—most recently in May 2001, when it
was consigned for sale by financier Henry Kravis, at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg (now Phillips, de Pury & Company), New York, fetching $13.2 million; and earlier, in the fall of 1989, when it realized $14.3 million (from a Japanese buyer, an auction expert says).
The Lichtenstein painting was last shown publicly in a 1987 exhibit at the Blum Helman Gallery, New York, an Allen spokesman reports.
The four additional works revealed to ARTnewsletter include Paul Signac’s 1891 Concarneau: Calme du matin (Op. 219. Larghetto), which was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1985 and is paired for this exhibition with Mark Rothko’s 1956 Yellow over Purple, last shown at the Terra Museum of Art in 1983, according to an Allen spokesman.
In terms of auction appearances, records show that the Signac piece was sold at Christie’s New York for $4.4 million in November 1998; the Rothko was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $14.3 million in May 2000.
In the other pairing disclosed, the Edgar Degas pastel Femme assise devant un piano, 1882-85—which last was shown publicly at the Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris, during 1955, says Tucker—is coupled with Eric Fischl’s 2004 Krefeld Project, Bedroom Scene #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds), which was shown at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery last spring.
In addition to the artists listed above, the official list of artists in the Paul Allen Family Collection mentions—“among others”—Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning, Paul Gauguin, Nan Goldin, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh.
Though they’ve had their discreet hunches, top auction experts and other insiders frankly acknowledge that they have had no concrete idea until now about the exact content of Allen’s collection and little direct interaction with Allen, whose personal fortune is currently ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s seventh largest.
Speculation tends to follow New York dealer David Nash, who is often reported to be Allen’s art adviser and representative in both the private-sales and auction arenas. Nash routinely and politely declines to comment on such reports.
For now, sources confirm the going wisdom that the main focus of Allen’s collection is in the Impressionist and modern fields—but they predict that art-world observers may be surprised at the extent of Allen’s contemporary holdings and at the appearance in the collection of pictures unfamiliar to the current art market.
Allen has been buying for about a dozen years and is still actively collecting, sources say. The Seattle exhibition does not represent the culmination of his collection, just the decision to finally share it more widely—specifically to reach out in an innovative way to a broader audience than classic fine-arts shows generally attract.