Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen's $1b art collection poised to set record at Christie's

Tech mogul Paul Allen, who died in 2018 aged 65, was perhaps best recognized for bringing Microsoft and personal computers into our lives. But what fewer people know is that beyond his talents for computing, he was also a private yet omnivorous art collector.

This November, over 150 pieces from his remarkable collection is heading to auction at Christie’s New York, with all proceeds dedicated to philanthropy. Valued in excess of US$1 billion, the sale is set to be the most expensive art collection ever sold at auction. So far only two highlight lots have been revealed – a landscape painting by French Post-Impressionist Cézanne and an artwork by American abstract expressionist Jasper Johns, which are expected to sell for over US$100 million and US$50 million respectively.

While the details on the offerings are still being catalogued, The Value has looked through the related auction records and exhibitions to take a guess on what’s being offered.

Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates

Paul Cézanne | La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 65.1 x 81 cm | Expect to sell for over US$100 million

Before introducing the tech tycoon, let’s take a look at the previous auction records for private art collections.

In 2009, more than 600 artworks from the collection of legendary designers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé was brought to Christie’s Paris. Led by paintings of Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, the sale gathered US$443 million and set the record for the most valuable private collection sold at auction.

The record was then renewed in 2018, when Christie’s put the art collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller up for sale in New York. With highlight lots including works by Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet, the week-long sales eventually smashed the previous record at US$835.1 million.

While Christie’s hold the record for more than a decade, Sotheby’s finally beat out its main rival in 2022, thanks to the high-profile divorce of American real estate tycoon Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife Linda. As part of their asset settlement, two court-ordered auctions took place in November 2021 and May 2022 in New York, which pushed the current record price to US$922 million.

Now that Paul Allen’s collection is estimated at more than US$1 billion without premium, Christie’s is bound to regain the throne from Sotheby’s.

Paull Allen and Bill Gates studying at Lakeside School

Jasper Johns | Small False Star, 55.5 x 46.3 cm | Expect to sell for over US$50 million

Back in the late 1960s, Paul Allen and Bill Gates met each other at the private Lakeside School in Seattle, when Gates was in seventh grade and Allen was two years ahead. Both passionate computer lovers, the two hit it off and started hanging out together, especially once new computer arrived at their school.

Irresistibly drawn to teletype machines, the pair spent all their free time messing around with any computers they could get their hands on. At the time, there was a Sigma mainframe computer that could be used for data processing at the University of Washington. Allen and Gates were, of course, eager to give it a whirl and they decided to venture into the lab with the help of a friend at the university.

With the advanced computers, Allen and Gates began working together to invent a traffic-measuring device – which, in the end, did not succeed because they were kicked out of the lab for hogging the teletype machines and disturbing others. Though being barred, Allen was grateful for the university, saying in his memoirs that Microsoft might not have happened if not for those days in the lab. In return, Allen funded the university’s computer science school, which is now named after him.

Mark Rothko | Yellow Over Purple, 177.2 x 150.8 cm | Paul Allen acquired it in 2000, not sure if it would be auctioned 

Paul Gauguin | Maternity II, 94.6 x 61 cm | Paul Allen acquired it in 2004, not sure if it would be auctioned 

When Gates famously dropped out of Harvard, it was Allen who persuaded him into the decision. After both quitting studies, they focused on developing software and systems; and launched the world-renowned Microsoft, earning them tens of billions of dollars.  

Unfortunately, soon after Allen reached the zenith of career, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer. In 1983, he stepped down his position as Microsoft’s chief technologist, and remained on the board of directors. Three years later, he set up a private company to manage his business, philanthropic efforts and multi-billion-dollar investment portfolio.

Allen left Microsoft’s board in 2000 and assumed the post of senior strategy advisor to the company’s management team. In 2018, he died of septic shock related to cancer at the age of 65, with an estimated net worth of around US$20 billion at the time.

Paul Allen's used a photo of him playing guitar as a memorial photo

Gustav Klimt | Birch Forest, 110 x 110 cm | Paul Allen acquired it in 2006, not sure if it would be auctioned 

In a tribute to Allen, Gates mentioned his childhood friend as such: To fully appreciate the philosophy behind Paul’s giving, you need to know one thing about him: Paul was driven by an incredible curiosity his whole life.

In fact, many called Allen a polymath, whose knowledge and skills spanned a wide range of disciplines. Deeply captivated by Jimi Hendrix, not only did he play guitarist for bands, he also acquired his musical hero’s guitars and established the Museum of Pop Culture in his hometown Seattle. Also interested in history, he led a research team to spend years searching for and found USS Indianapolis – a long-lost American Navy cruiser sank during World War II.

And art was part of Allen’s childhood, introduced to him by his father – a librarian who collected Chinese celadons and hung Georges Rouault’s poster in his home. In the 1990s, Allen started attending auctions and formed his grand art collection, which is to be auctioned this November. As a keen philanthropist with over US$2.6 billion donations to various sectors, the proceeds of the upcoming auctions will also go to charities, as per his wishes.

Below are some of the paintings belonging to Allen, either acquired by him at auctions or had been on loan to museums. From Renaissance master Botticelli to Austria’s pride Gustav Klimt and prominent figurative painter Lucian Freud, his collection was filled with blue-chip artworks – though the auction house still has not revealed which are to be auctioned. 

  • Mark Rothko | Yello Over Purple, 177.2 x 150.8 cm | Sotheby's, 2000, around US$1.43 million
  • Paul Gauguin | Maternity II, 94.6 x 61 cm | Sotheby's, 2004, around US$39.2 million
  • Gustav Klimt | Birch Forest, 110 x 110 cm | Sotheby's 2006, around US$40.3 million
  • Sandro Botticelli | The Madonna of the Magnificat, around 63 cm 
  • Roy Lichtenstein | The Kiss
  • Georgia O’Keeffe | White Rose with Larkspur No. 1, 1927, around 91.5 x 76.2 cm
  • Lucian Freud | Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), around 185 x 198 cm

Sandro Botticelli | The Madonna of the Magnificat, around 63 cm | Paul Allen's collection, not sure if it would be auctioned 

Roy Lichtenstein | The Kiss | Paul Allen's collection, not sure if it would be auctioned 

Georgia O’Keeffe | White Rose with Larkspur No. 1, 1927, around 91.5 x 76.2 cm | Paul Allen's collection, not sure if it would be auctioned 

Lucian Freud | Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau), around 185 x 198 cm | Paul Allen's collection, not sure if it would be auctioned