On the Block: The Rise and Rise of Private Collections

03 Sep 2018

Here is some good news for buyers, sellers and auction houses. The phenomenon of auctions specializing in a single collection has been growing for years and is reaching new peaks in 2018.

The prime example so far is the Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection sale at Christie’s in May. This made $832 million, a record for a single-owner auction. The London-based house published its half-year figures in July and singled out the event for boosting its total revenue. Christie’s six-month sales rose to $4 billion, an increase of 35 percent in dollar terms.

While both Christie’s and Sotheby’s point to continued global demand as another key growth factor, it’s easy to see the appeal of a strong private collection.

Many of the big headlines of the last few decades have come not from mixed-owner collections, but from groupings assembled by connoisseurs.

One may include artist sales such as Damien Hirst’s two-day auction of new work, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” at Sotheby’s in London in 2008, which raised almost $200 million. Clearly few will forget “Collection Yves Saint Laurent et Pierre Berge” at Christie’s Paris in 2009, which made the equivalent of $483 million.

The idea of a collection makes sense on many levels. In many cases, the provenance is excellent; the serial collectors are often sophisticated buyers of more interesting works, and possess the funds needed to acquire museum-quality items. If the buyers’ taste matches that of the seller, multiple items may be snapped up, especially if they go well together, such as a set of prints, or a painting and its preliminary drawings.

Celebrity auctions have drawn considerable interest, such as of works owned by David Bowie and Sting. The latest to watch is the collection of the late beloved entertainer Robin Williams and his wife of more than 20 years, film producer and philanthropist Marsha Garces Williams, in a dedicated auction in New York on October 4. The proceeds will benefit charities championed by the couple. Williams took his own life in 2014 after a career that included “Mork & Mindy,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The autumn auction will showcase his Contemporary art, including sculpture by Niki de Saint-Phalle and street art by Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Invader. Memorabilia and props are also included. Fuller details and estimates will be announced around Labor Day.

Christie’s New York is selling works from the collector and art dealer Eugene V. Thaw in a single-owner sale on October 30 to benefit arts, environmental and animal welfare charities. Apart from this Classic Week sale, other lots will feature in separate London and New York events.

In total, there are more than 200 lots that are expected to exceed $10 million at hammer prices. Artists include Joseph Cornell, Paul Cezanne, Salvador Dali, Jean-Honore Fragonard, Lee Krasner, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock.

Noel Annesley, Christie’s Honorary Chairman, UK, said Thaw was “one of the most influential Americans to shape the art world in the Post-War era.” Thaw died this year, having left an indelible mark on the art world, according to Christie’s.

In 1950, at age of 23, he opened his first gallery. Thaw moved to Madison Avenue in 1954. He co-wrote the catalogue raisonne of Pollock’s work and advised some of the most important collectors of the 20th Century, such as Paul Mellon and Norton Simon, as well as major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Under his advice, David Rockefeller formed a syndicate in 1968 with six other collectors to purchase the Gertrude and Leo Stein Collection, which Thaw appraised. Picasso’s “Fillette a la corbeille fleurie,” which sold for $115 million in May 2018, was among the works from the Stein collection.

Though Thaw dealt primarily in European art — from Old Masters to Modern — his personal collection encompassed multiple categories, including Old-Master Drawings and 19th-Century oil sketches.  Christie’s in France has scheduled the sale of “The Stoclet Collection:  African and Oceanic Masterpieces” on October 30.

The 30 lots have been passed by descent within the family and never been on the market since their acquisition in the first decades of the 20th century by Adolphe Stoclet, who ran the finance company Societe  Generale de Belgique.

Lots include a Yaka head-rest from Congo, one of the best of its kind to remain in private hands and is estimated at as much as €500,000 (about $587,000).

The collection will appeal to more than erudite connoisseurs in the Africana field, said Roland de Lathuy, managing director of Christie’s Brussels. It may attract a larger group of collectors, “who are following the cross-categorial collecting approach, which has been so well put in practice by Stoclet, juxtaposing African and Oceanic, art, Old Master paintings, Antiquities and medieval relics with his Palais in Brussels.”

The Palais Stoclet, designed by the pioneer Wiener Werkstatte Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, was built between 1905 and 1911 in Brussels. It was one of the most luxurious private houses, with murals by Koloman Moser, Michael Powolny and Gustave Klimt. It contained a dedicated “Salon Africain,” where the lot 30 lots were displayed. The building is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

The French capital is buzzing in September with La Biennale Paris, which will host 80 exhibitors from September 8 through 16 under the glass roof of the Grand Palais. Coinciding with that, Sotheby’s Paris is staging “Melanges: From the Collections of the Comte and Comtesse de Viel Castel” on September 12.

As the name implies, this auction is a mixed bag of outstanding art.  Jimmy and Isabel de Viel Castel’s collection includes everything from 18th-century to Contemporary works such as Anselm Kiefer’s “Lilith” (estimate: €50,000- €70,000). Also represented are younger artists such as Dieter Roth (“Untitled,” estimate:  €2,000-€3,000) and Jacques Truphemus, with the presciently named “Salle des Ventes (Auction House)” (estimate: €5,000- €7,000), which was bought from the Claude Bernard Gallery. There are also Old Masters for sale, such as a still-life by Francois Desportes, “Le Repas Frugal (The Frugal Meal)” (estimate: €100,000-€150,000), from the turn of the 18th century, and a pair of 1839 “Views of Venice” in gouache by the Italian painter Carlo Grubacs (estimate: €18,000-€25,000).

There is also a large bronze of Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and his studio (estimate €60,000-€100,000) based on Edme Bouchardon’s equestrian monument of Louis XIV.

Further ahead, Christie’s France is hosting a sale celebrating the 160th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and Japan on November 15, 2018. The sale combines various collections, with one focus being Japanese prints, a source of inspiration for Western artists in all categories. There are Katsushika Hokusai’s sketches of birds and flowers and Utagawa Hiroshige’s landscapes with plum-tree branches at about €30,000. Works such as these inspired French artists like Henri Riviere, who is represented by a lithograph, estimated at as much as €8,000, of the Eiffel Tower.

Paul Elie Ranson is also included in this sale with “Baigneuse lavant son pied (Bather Washing Her Foot),” painted in 1898 when the artist was fully part of the Nabis, whose design-oriented images reflected Japanese prints as well as Art Nouveau. This painting is estimated at €80,000 to €120,000. By contrast, one mixed-owner sale worth highlighting is the China Guardian Hong Kong Autumn Auctions 2018 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on October 2-3. Lots include Yoshitomo Nara’s “Submarines in Girl,” an acrylic on canvas work from 1992 with a top estimate of HKD 15 million ($1.9 million).

In considering all these collections it is quoting advice from one of its directing forces, Eugene V. Thaw. “Great art collecting,” he said, “need not be based on a great fortune; education, experience and eye are more important.”

Whether you go for mixed or single owner sales, happy hunting.

This article appears in the September issue of Art+Auction.




On the Block: The Rise and Rise of Private Collections