David Bowie once called himself an art addict, one who obsessed over collecting it. What exactly he owned, and how much, was never entirely clear. Until now.
The public got its first chance to experience part of Bowie’s private art collection—his obsessions—up close on Wednesday at the London opening of a 30-work exhibition. The paintings, sculptures and other objects were selected from the late artist’s more than 400-piece art trove, named “Bowie/Collector.” It goes up for auction at Sotheby’s in early November after making stops in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. The full collection is expected to bring in about £10 million ($13 million).
The eclectic pieces in the exhibition reveal Bowie’s penchant for a broad range of artistic movements and styles, though his main interests seem to firmly lie in modern and contemporary British art, including works from artists such as Damien Hirst, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Harold Gilman.
One of the most valuable works on display is “Air Power” (1984) by American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, worth an estimated £3.5 million. At an imposing 5-feet tall, the painting is one of the more striking pieces on display and incorporates much of the distinctive graffiti and stark primitivism that Basquiat became known for.
Another standout is Frank Auerbach’s painting “Head of Gerda Boehm” (1965). Gerda Boehm was Auerbach’s cousin and the subject of many of his paintings from 1961 to 1982. In the portrait, the artist pushed and scraped the paint across the canvas to such an extreme that it appears to have been sculpted as much as it has been painted.
“I want to sound like that looks,” Bowie said of the painting in 1998, which is estimated to be worth more than half a million dollars.
Frances Christie, Sotheby’s head of modern British art, said one of the most breathtaking works in the collection is “Witness” (1961) by Peter Lanyon. The artist went up in a glider a few years before painting the piece, which allowed him to see the land, sea and sky in a different way, she said.
“It’s intensely British when you know the artist and the landscape of Cornwall that it portrays, but actually it could be the work of any of the major abstract artists working anywhere in the world in the post-war period,” she said. “It’s painted with such intensity, emotion and expression.”
You can expect more than just paintings in this idiosyncratic collection. Bowie’s record player, created by brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Brionvega in 1965, is described as being “wonderfully unconventional.” Bowie pushed this unconventionality further by installing a USB port into the back of the cabinet, allowing him to play music from his computer into the record player’s speakers.
The list prices range from a few hundred dollars to several million. But not so fast: The works have been priced based on their artistic significance, without taking into account any increase in value attributable to their famous former owner.
Expect to see many of the more apparently affordable pieces—such as the record player, listed at £800—to sell for a lot more.
Romuald Hazoume’s “Alexandra” (1995) is constructed from found objects—a telephone, a broken record, a black jerrycan handle—and is perhaps most indicative of Bowie’s sense of play and his interest in the obscure.
With such a large collection, Bowie would often keep much of it in storage but bring various pieces out from time to time to match his mood or where he was living, a Sotheby’s spokesman said.
It’s that shifting of moods and restless variety that makes the exhibition so intriguing. “I’m not a buyer of things,” Bowie told the BBC 17 years ago. “The only thing that I buy—addictively and obsessively, probably—is art.”
The exhibition will run from July 20 to Aug. 9 at Sotheby’s, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1A 2AA. Opening hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. It is open to the public and free of charge.
The preview will tour in Los Angeles on Sept. 20 to 21, New York from Sept. 26 to 29 and Hong Kong from Oct. 12 to 15.