Bowie/Collector reveals David Bowie’s taste in art was as inquisitive and eclectic as his music. James Beech finds out why families should consider the opportunities for investment at the upcoming unique auction
David Bowie approached death as just another artistic expression of his life.
The Starman’s curation of his own transcendental legacy from beyond the grave should be a guiding light for other ultra-high net worth individuals consumed with protecting their empires once they are gone.
Among them is Giorgio Armani (82), who set up a foundation to govern his €2.64 billion ($2.9 billion) fashion empire with no clear heir apparent.
The months following Bowie’s untimely passing have seen a renaissance in his critical and commercial appreciation, with exhaustive CD and vinyl boxed sets, and his avant-garde musical Lazarus performed on both sides of the Atlantic.
An auction of some 400 evocative artworks from his private collection, ranging from £800 ($1,037) to £3.5 million, is currently touring the globe ahead of its sale in November. The entire collection is valued at an estimated $10 million.
Bowie was internationally acclaimed as a chameleonic singer, songwriter, musician, actor, fashion muse, and catalyst of social change.
Now the London auction house Sotheby’s blockbuster event, Bowie/Collector, reveals yet another, until now, private facet of the icon—that of discerning, fascinated art lover and investor.
“Art was, seriously, the only thing I had ever wanted to own,” Bowie told The New York Times in 1998.
“It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way I feel in the mornings. The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I am going through.”
Bowie/Collectorsees the artist become the channel through which a variety of underestimated and undervalued 20th century masters get their due attention from the art market. His handpicked validation enhances the reputation and the value of these pieces on the auction block and family business principals are expected to be among the avid bidders on 10 and 11 November.
Excitement has been growing in the art world since Sotheby’s announced the sale in July. The announcement went viral online and there has been huge interest from the global press.
Selected highlights from the 400-piece collection were exhibited at Sotheby’s in London on 20 July to 9 August and generated considerable excitement among prospective buyers and dealers in a traditionally quiet time of the year.
Highlights of Bowie/Collector went on from London to Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong to give fans the opportunity to see their icon’s taste in art.
The entire collection returns to London for public exhibition before the auction is held at Sotheby’s in three parts on 10 and 11 November.
A spokesperson for the Bowie estate says, while his family is keeping certain pieces of particular significance, “it is now time to give others the opportunity to appreciate—and acquire—the art and objects he so admired.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss the collection as the random pickings of an idly rich dilettante.
The estate spokesperson notes Bowie’s collection was fuelled by personal interest and compiled out of passion.
“He always sought and encouraged loans from the collection and enjoyed sharing the works in his custody.”
Bowie was an artist, critic, patron, publisher, curator and even magazine editor. He accepted in 1994 the invitation to join the editorial board of the glossy quarterly art magazine Modern Painters and interviewed the likes of Jeff Koons, Tracy Emin, and Damien Hirst, the latter he described as, “My idea of a contemporary artist.”
One of Hirst’s spin paintings appears in Bowie/Collector. Its former owner told The New York Times he thought Hirst’s work “is extremely emotional, subjective, very tied up with his own personal fears—his fear of death is very strong—and I find his pieces moving and not at all flippant.”
Bowie launched the illustrated art-book publishing company 21 in 1998, with Karen Wright, then editor of Modern Painters, the gallery owner Bernard Jacobson, and Sir Timothy Sainsbury. Sir Timothy’s great-grandparents, John James Sainsbury and Mary Ann Staples, opened a grocers at 173 Drury Lane, London in 1869, which became the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.
“Art is not elite any more,” Bowie told The Times in 1997.
“We want to keep the writing accessible—the same number of people who go to rock concerts go to museums and galleries.”
Revealing his mischievous sense of humour, Bowie hosted in Koons’ Manhattan studio on April Fool’s Day in 1998 the packed launch party for the book Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960. The mysterious long-forgotten abstract expressionist Tate was in fact the fictional creation and art world hoax of novelist William Boyd—a friend of Bowie’s.
Perhaps tapping into his obsession for different personas, Bowie not only wrote in Boyd’s pseudo-biography that he owned artwork by Tate but he also read aloud three extracts from the book at the party, convincing many in New York’s glitterati that Tate was real and that they had appreciated his work for years.
“Let us make self-important people look stupid,” Boyd says.
“I think that has motivated us and motivated him.
“There will be a Nat Tate chapter in every biography of David Bowie because he was so intrinsic to it. And his connection, the glamour of his connection to it, made it seem much bigger than it actually was.”
Oh! You Pretty Things
Bryn Sayles, deputy director and Modern & Post-War British Art Specialist at Sotheby’s, says at the heart of the collection is a great group of post-war and modern British art. There is plenty of room for growth in the market and having a sale like Bowie’s collection will do much to invigorate that market.
“There are over 250 items with some of the best artists in Britain in the 20th century,” she continues.
“We have got great examples by Peter Lanyon (1918–1964) which I think could do very well. His works are quite rare to see at auction, he died at a young age from a gliding accident.
“People like sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986), less known names from the beginning of the century, people like painter Harold Gilman (1876–1919), then all the way up through the post-war period people like painter Frank Auerbach (1931–).”
Bowie told The New York Times in 1998 he wanted to sound how Auerbach’s vibrant, tumultuous, almost sculptural paintings looked.
“It will give spiritual weight to my angst,” he said.
“Some mornings I’ll look at it and go ‘Oh, God, yeah! I know!’ But that same painting, on a different day, can produce in me an incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist.”
Boyd shares his late south London born and raised friend’s love of 20th century British art “because there’s something undervalued and underrated about it.
“He’s a Brixton boy and I have a feeling that somehow the art of his own country was what drew him to these artists. And they are very good. Just because they do not command sky-high prices does not detract from their massive ability.
“Nobody had thought of buying this stuff before him.”
But Bowie’s intellectual and emotional curiosity for art also took him around the world. These travels are represented in the collection by the Beninese, almost Duchampian, sculptor Romuald Hazoumè (1962– ), the strikingly designed 1970s furniture of Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) and the Milan-based Memphis group. There is also the almost anthropomorphised Italian 1965 record playing stereo cabinet by brothers Achille (1918–2002) and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1913-1968) for the Italian electronics company Brionvega – once a family business.
“There are also really exciting pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988),” Sayles adds.
“His Air Power of 1984 is really exciting because many people will remember that David Bowie played Andy Warhol in the film Basquiat that Julian Schnabel directed in 1996.”
Bowie said New Yorker Basquiat’s work relates to rock music in ways very few other artists get near.
“I feel the moment of his brush or crayon touching the canvas,” he told Modern Painters in 1996.
“There is a burning immediacy to his ever evaporating decisions that fires the imagination 10 or 15 years on, as freshly molten as the day they were poured onto the canvas.”
The Man Who Sold The World
Sayles anticipates great interest from representatives of international family businesses and family offices, “not only for the very expensive works within the collection, but we hope for a lot of the really incredible examples that are not so particularly highly priced.
“The great thing about David Bowie is he was a real intuitive collector and he really went with his gut, but he had an amazing eye. So he would buy things by artists who are perhaps not as well known internationally, but that he recognised were amazing examples. So I think it is a great opportunity for those sorts of people to buy the best examples by these artists at a time when they are still perhaps undervalued.”
Ivan Macquisten, an art market writer, campaigner, and commentator, says Bowie was a serious collector and tastemaker who generally set trends rather than followed them.
“Coupled with his sophisticated approach to collecting, his interest in the avant-garde, meant he was often able to spot what would become influential and valuable before others did. So many of the pieces in his collection already hold great value regardless of their association with him.”
Because Bowie was not known to be a regular seller, it is uncertain how much his association with individual pieces will affect their prices now. However, Macquisten says there is no doubt that a provenance to a well-known and respected collection can boost values.
“Taken in the round, if the right buyers emerge on the day, I would expect to see some sort of uplift on that basis. Prices may rise and fall for artworks in the collection, but any decline will be in spite of the Bowie association rather than because of it.”
Macquisten says all these considerations give Sotheby’s auction significant advantages over other offerings when it comes to investment potential, but buyers need to assess the catalogue carefully, including the estimates, and target the key pieces.
“As a rule of thumb, typical works by the biggest names are the safest bet. Go for the best and you will rarely be disappointed. On that basis, names like Auerbach and Basquiat stand out. If you are prepared to take a bit of a punt, I would also look at some of the contemporary African art.”
Sayles recommended those parties interested in acquiring pieces from Bowie/Collector to bid at Sotheby’s on the day for the best experience.
“With a sale like David Bowie’s, it is going to be an incredibly exciting event and we anticipate lots and lots of competition,” she says.
“Because you get people bidding on the phone, people bidding in the room, people bidding online, it is only by actually being there that you actually see all the different participants and assess the level of interest that’s happening.
“I’d say to look widely because I suspect a lot of the works will do very well, so perhaps if you miss the first one, have a plan B in your pocket that you might be able to go for.”
While reserves are always private and confidential, legally the reserve can never be above the printed low estimate, she says.
“That is another good reason to be in the room if you are thinking about bidding, because the auctioneer will start at some level below the reserve and he will work up to the reserve. So if he is starting quite a bit below the low estimate, you can get the sense that maybe you will get a deal because maybe there is a bit of leeway on the reserve.”
Given the careful legacy building by David Bowie in his final years and months, it can be no accident that the rock ‘n roll artist, who took so much inspiration and restoration from art, should use his undimmed celebrity to give his artistic heroes their overdue time in the sun.
Bowie/Collectoroffers family art investors a unique, and affordable, window into all of their souls.