Inside Paul Allen’s billion-dollar art auction


More than 150 masterpieces owned by the late Microsoft cofounder—including works by Botticelli, Cezanne, Seurat, Monet and Hockney—paint a portrait of the billionaire as a passionate collector. Next week they go on the block at Christie’s and will break a record for the most expensive sale of all time.

In a crowded Christie’s auction room in May 2018, Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s 1931 painting The Rivals came to the stage. Commissioned by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and given as a wedding gift to her son, David, and his new wife, Peggy, in 1941, the work was a small part of the largest auction to date, one that eventually set a record with its US$835 million total.

Within a few minutes, The Rivals sold for nearly US$9.8 million, a record for a Latin American artist at auction (one eventually shattered by Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, in a $35 million sale in 2021). The new owner, however, a phone bidder, remained a mystery.

Four years later, The Rivals is once again up for sale at Christie’s, alongside more than 150 rare works of art in another groundbreaking auction that sheds light on one of the world’s greatest private collectors: the late Microsoft cofounder—and The Rivals’ mysterious phone bidder—Paul Allen.

Georges Seurat, Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version).

Point of Pride: Allen considered Georges Seurat’s “Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version)” a “talisman of his collection.” It has a presale estimate in excess of $100 million.


Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection spans 26 years of Allen’s collecting and 500 years of art history, from Botticelli to contemporary artist McArthur Binion. When it takes place November 9 and 10, the auction is guaranteed by Christie’s to raise at least US$1 billion—eclipsing the record set in May by the $922 million Macklowe Collection as the largest sale in auction history.

Allen’s impressive art collection also represents a fraction of the US$20.3 billion fortune he left behind—five months after purchasing The Rivals, he died at 65, from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma—including sports teams (Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers), a $278 million superyacht, and a vintage plane collection. Allen’s sister, Jody, has been gradually reducing his estate since his death as well as managing the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and the record-breaking proceeds from the auction will go to charities that have not been disclosed.

“This sale exhausts superlatives,” says Max Carter, a vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s who is overseeing the auction. “It’s historic in terms of the figures, historic in terms of the philanthropy and historic in terms of the masterpiece quality.”

Indeed, Allen’s collection seems destined to break records. It’s a who’s who of the most famous names in art history: In addition to Botticelli and Binion, there’s a Monet, a Lichtenstein, two Van Goghs, four Calders, five Picassos, six Jasper Johns and a Seurat that hasn’t been seen at auction in 52 years. “The breadth of what he achieved and the amount of beauty that he managed to assemble in 26 years is an achievement I know no parallel to,” says Carter.

Adding another record to the tally, Allen’s collection contains three works estimated at $100 million or more. The top lot is expected to be Cezanne’s La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, which he bought at auction in 2001 for $38.5 million (or $64 million today). It now has a presale estimate of $120 million.

“Mont Sainte-Victoire was one of Cezanne’s favorite subjects, but there are not many finished works of the mountain,” Margaux Morel, a Christie’s expert on Impressionist and Modern Art, says of the work, which is completed. “It’s extremely rare. Of the highly finished pieces, there are only about 37—32 of which are in public institutions.”

Van Gogh’s Verger avec cyprès is another lot expected to break the $100 million barrier: It sold for $15,000 when it last appeared at auction in 1935 (or about $300,000 today).

The third lot collectors are buzzing about is Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite Version), which sold for $1 million when it was on the block in 1970 ($7.6 million today). Allen bought it from a private collection in 1997 for an unknown sum and according to Carter, it was one of his favorites.

Cézanne Paul, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire; Vincent Van Gogh, Verger avec cyprès.

Impressive Post-Impressionism: Allen loved landscapes, like Cézanne’s “La Montagne Sainte-Victoire” and Van Gogh’s “Verger avec cyprès”—both of which have presale estimates north of $100 million.


“It is probably the most important 19th-century painting that Christie’s has ever sold,” Carter continues. Only 19.5 inches wide, Les Poseuses is, essentially, a draft, a smaller version of the 8-foot-wide painting that now hangs at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. But that’s the point. “It is entrenched in technical accomplishment,” says Carter. “It’s probably the finest pointillist painting—full stop.”Adds Morel: “Paul Allen was seeking the best of the best. He was looking for masterpieces.”

Allen started collecting major works in the early 1990s, nearly a decade after leaving Microsoft and a few years after an impactful trip to the Tate Modern in London that reframed his perception of art.

“When he was a kid, he had posters of different artworks on his walls,” says Deborah Gunn, who was associate director of art finance at Allen’s investment management company, Vulcan, from 2006 to 2016. “And I think he just had this realization at the Tate where he was like, ‘Oh, I too can own amazing artworks.’”

Over the years, Allen spent much of his fortune on his own art institutions—he opened Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture and founded the Seattle Art Fair—while quietly amassing a private collection that was highly personal, and, as a result, wildly diverse.

“Paul was his own person and really defied being put in a box as any specific type of collector.” Mireya Lewin, Vulcan’s director of art collections since 2016, said in an email. “He acquired according to his passions, interest and personal aesthetic, and he gave special consideration to works that represented the true oeuvre of an artist.”

“Allen was always looking towards the future, and he was attracted to artists who saw the world differently.”

As Allen himself explained to Newsweek in 2012, “The breadth of what interests me sometimes surprises even me. People have said to me before: ‘But Paul, you like Lichtenstein and you like Monet,’ but to me that’s not that unusual.”

Still, there are certain themes that unite the collection. Allen was drawn to landscapes, always looking for windows into an artist’s mind—fitting for a Microsoft cofounder. He especially treasured paintings of Venice: There are eight coming to auction, the most expensive of which is a Manet with a presale estimate of $65 million.

Sargent John Singer, The Façade Of La Salute, Venice

Venice, Anyone: The auction features eight paintings of The Floating City, including John Singer Sargent’s “The Façade Of La Salute, Venice,” which has an estimate of $1.2 million.


“You can keep pulling on different threads throughout the collection, and it is so layered and so multifaceted that you really realize what a genius he was,” says Johanna Flaum, a Christie’s vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art who is also overseeing the sale. “Allen was always looking towards the future, and he was attracted to artists who saw the world differently.”

He favored Johns and Seurat for their deconstructed styles, which, to him, were reminiscent of coding. “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 in an interview for his traveling exhibition Seeing Nature in 2016, “but in a different kind of language.”

And his fascination with Georgia O’Keeffe—there are four of her paintings in the auction—transcended the canvas: Allen purchased one of her homes in 2000, a 20-acre estate in Santa Fe that’s now on the market for $17.5 million. “He loved that place,” says Gunn. “O’Keeffe’s works really spoke to him, and I think it was a combination of the house and the artist that moved him.”

As a collector, Allen was determined—he once won a 14-minute bidding war for one of Monet’s haystacks in 2016, paying $81.4 million—but disciplined. “To assemble this almost encyclopedic group of objects is an immense achievement,” says Carter. “To do that you have to be both very curious, very disciplined, but also very decisive. And he was very decisive.

“I think the most remarkable thing about him as a collector,” Carter continues, “is how quickly he progressed into buying the best masterpieces that can be found on the market. And he made very few mistakes.”

Jasper Johns, Small False Start; Georgia O'Keeffe's, White Rose with Larkspur No. 1.

Brushes with Greatness: Allen often purchased directly from artists, including Jasper Johns (left, “Small False Start”). He even bought one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s homes (right, “White Rose with Larkspur No. 1”)


As a result, Allen rarely sold works from his collection, preferring instead to live with them. Combined with his under-the-radar shopping habits—Allen often bought from private collections or, as with the Rivera, bid over the phone during auctions—it paints a secretive portrait of the billionaire. But that wasn’t his goal.

“He took so much joy in the process of collecting,” says Gunn. “Seeing the artwork, discovering it, and then living with the work and learning about it. He had a lot of interests in life, but I think that is what has stuck with me all this time: How much he enjoyed his collection and how much he wanted to share it with others.”

And there’s plenty left to share. A recent investigation by Artnet found that there is at least $500 million of Allen’s art that’s not in this auction, and both Carter and Gunn confirm that the $1 billion sale isn’t the whole picture. “These are only some highlights,” says Gunn.

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