Works from the collection of S.I. Newhouse, the late Condé Nast chairman, will head to auction in May at a Christie’s sale which is estimated to bring in more than $144 million.
The upcoming auction is the most recent in a series of high-profile single-owner sales over the past few months. In May, works owned by real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his wife Linda sold at Sotheby’s for $922 million following the couple’s divorce, the largest private collection sale in auction history at the time. This record was promptly broken in November, when the collection of Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, brought in more than $1.5 billion at a Christie’s sale. Notably, the works are being sold, rather than donated to museums, a departure from the practices of some past wealthy collectors.
“We saw with the Collection of Paul G. Allen that the market for true masterpieces is as strong as ever,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art, in a press release. “Building on this momentum, we could not be prouder to present this selection of masterpieces from the S.I. Newhouse Collection this May.”
Newhouse, who co-owned media conglomerate Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast, died in 2017 with an estimated net worth of $12.7 billion.
In 2019, Christie’s sold a 1986 Jeff Koons sculpture owned by Newhouse for more than $91 million, making it the most expensive work by a living artist to be sold at auction. Now, 16 modern and post-war works from Newhouse’s collection are coming to auction, including pieces from Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Lucian Freud.
Willem de Kooning’s 1947 painting Orestes has the highest estimate of the collection at more than $25 million. A Francis Bacon self-portrait from 1969 and Pablo Picasso’s 1937 L’Arlesienne are both estimated to sell for more than $20 million.
The cyclical nature of single-owner sales
“It’s very emblematic of the cycle of the contemporary art market,” said Heather Flow, an art advisor based in New York City. Newhouse is a prime example of someone who collected from the beginning of the contemporary art market until his death, she said. “If there were a number of people actively collecting modern and contemporary art beginning in the 1950s until now, those people are reaching a point in their lives where those works will be sold.”
Extraordinary works are now coming back onto the market, shifting from one generation to the next, said Flow. “If you’re a collector and you’ve been wanting access to works like this, it has not been easy to find them.”
And while these types of high-value sales have been occuring at a private level between living collectors, recent sales like those of the Macklowes, Allen and Newhouse garner more attention, she said, in part because of the public nature and shorter timelines of auction sales.
Although there’s been prominent single-owner sales recently, Flow said collectors are also continuing to donate their collections to museums. “Sometimes collectors would rather keep it private,” said Flow, who also does appraisals for the Internal Revenue Service regarding museum donations. “There’s much more PR motivation to talk about works that are going to be sold than those that will be privately donated.”
However, it’s also become much more complicated to donate major collections or works of art to museums, according to Elizabeth Pergam, co-chair of the Society for the History of Collecting, a nonprofit organization focused on collecting and the art market. “No longer can you just donate a work of art or a group of works of art, because space is at such a premium and the expense of housing works of art is a lot.”
Those who donate collections are therefore often asked to include an endowment in order to provide for the works, said Pergam. “There’s much more of a commitment when you’re donating your collection to a museum then there used to be,” she said, adding that the types of blue chip artwork in recent prominent single-owner collections are also not in high demand for most art institutions, which are now attempting to diversify their collections with more contemporary pieces.