Bidding to Own a Piece of David Bowie

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Bidding to Own a Piece of David Bowie

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LONDON — Waiters held trays of Champagne-filled glasses on the landing. Enormous photographs of David Bowie stared or smiled out from the walls. The soundtrack from “Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture” played, and a dim blue light filled Sotheby’s auction rooms in London as guests strolled in on Thursday night for the first of three eagerly anticipated sales of some 350 works from Bowie’s art collection on behalf of his estate. (The auction, called “Bowie/Collector,” had two more sales on Friday.)

There was no shortage of anticipation. Ever since Bowie’s death in January, interest in the musician’s life and work has been at fever pitch. (Not that anyone was disinterested before; the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “David Bowie Is” exhibition, which opened in London in 2013, has been seen by 1.5 million people in eight locations around the world and is the most visited show in the museum’s history.)

In the 10-day pre-sale viewing period, more than 37,000 people came to see the collection in London, and several thousand more saw it on pre-sale tours to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dubai and Hong Kong. “It feels like you get a bit closer to him, to what he was like,” said Leah Andrews, 57, who added that Thursday’s auction was her first time at a sale.

Composer, pop icon, actor, fashion lodestar and avatar of the avant-garde, Bowie pursued collecting — not just visual art, but also furniture, design, ceramics, books and records — with the same energy, passion and commitment that he gave to his art. The 350-odd items on sale at Sotheby’s represent about 65 percent of the work he acquired in the 1990s and 2000s, according to Sotheby’s.

“Every piece resonated personally with him,” Beth Greenacre, the curator of his collection since 2000, said in a telephone interview. “He had a collector’s mind; he was always gathering information.”

Perhaps because many people present in the auction room were curious fans rather than serious art buyers, the atmosphere was curiously low-key. Not a celebrity or art-world personality was in sight, and almost no one seemed to have bothered to dress up for the occasion, let alone attempt a Bowie-esqe outlandishness. (The lone exception: a woman with upswept blue hair and an extravagant matching hat.)

But the room — at least at the start of the sale — was full, with rows of the Sotheby’s staff on telephones to the right and left of the auctioneer, Oliver Barker, and ranks of reporters clutching notebooks and computers at one side. First came a film, offering thoughts from Ms. Greenacre on Bowie as a collector, and a montage of photographs.

“He used his art to understand his place in the world,” she said.

Although the initial items (a Bernard Leach vase, paintings by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Winifred Nicholson and Peter Lanyon) offered for sale went for well over their asking prices, there was little animation in the room until a vibrantly green spin painting, “Beautiful, hallo, space-boy painting” (1995), created by Damien Hirst and Bowie himself, arrived on the auctioneer’s easel. Although Bowie made a significant amount of his own art, particularly in the 1990s, it was the work in the sale with his name on it, and the animated three-way competition by telephone bidders made it clear that owning a piece of Bowie was the draw.

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“Is that a bid or an Instagram shot?” Mr. Barker asked, as the tension heightened. (It sold for $975,834, double its high estimate.)

“He was brilliant fun to spin with,” Mr. Hirst recounted in an interview published in the auction catalog. “I remember telling him to come to the studio in old clothes, but he turned up in brand-new expensive clothes; he said he didn’t have any old clothes.” Bowie, Mr. Hirst added, didn’t mind getting paint on them, and stuck his watch on the canvas, getting it smashed in the process. “He understood the color and playfulness in the spin paintings, and I guess that’s why he was moved to come and find me,” Mr. Hirst writes.

Bowie met and interviewed Mr. Hirst, Balthus, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel in the 1990s while on the board of the British art magazine Modern Painters, but he also sought out more obscure artists whose work he admired, Ms. Greenacre said.

“He went to St. Ives, because there are a lot of St. Ives artists in the collection, and to the other end of the country to visit Scotland and meet with Scottish artists,” she said. “He even visited Port Seton, a tiny shipping village, where John Bellany grew up, to get a sense of the place.” (Several paintings by Bellany, including a Port Seton scene, “Fishermen in the Snow,” were part of the Friday sales.)

The musician was “a straightforward collector,” Ms. Greenacre said. “He would go to galleries, having done lots of research. He would go to auctions himself; he enjoyed the theater of it. If he couldn’t get there, he’d be on the telephone. If I did it for him, it was all worked out in advance. He was very thorough.”

Bowie paid a record price for Harold Gilman’s “Interior (Mrs Mounter)” when he bought it at a Christie’s auction in 1994 for £111,500 ($140,915); on Thursday night it went for $602,904, a record for the artist, who died in 1919 at 43. “It was a cornerstone for him,” Ms. Greenacre said. “He was really determined to have it, and I think he would have been thrilled at the outcome last night.”

But the auction’s most electric moments were the sales of Frank Auerbach’s “Head of Gerda Boehm” (1965) and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Air Power” (1984), both the subject of fierce bidding battles. “He’s checking with his wife,” a Sotheby’s staff member, on the telephone with a bidder, said at one point. (His wife had her limits; it went to a bidder in the room, who declined to be named.) Both paintings sold for record amounts ($4,710,106 for the Auerbach; $8,817,308 for the Basquiat), with the Basquiat the top seller of the night, and both received a round of applause from a suddenly more animated room.

After that excitement, however, things grew quieter. When the sale had ended, Carole Rickaby, a hair-salon owner with bright pink tresses, said that she had come because she was a lifelong Bowie fan. “When I was 12, I went to a concert in Brighton, where I grew up,” she said. “We found out where he was staying and went up to his room. As we got there, David Bowie and Mick Ronson came walking along the corridor. He was wearing green dungarees and red platform shoes. I think we froze.”

Seeing his art, she said, made her feel closer to the artist. “He was always surprising,” she said.

Or as Bowie put it in a quotation looming large on a wall outside the auction room, from a 1998 interview in The New York Times: “Sometimes I wish that I could put myself in Duchamp’s place to feel what he felt when he put those things on show and said: ‘I wonder if they’ll go for this. I wonder what’s going to happen tomorrow morning.’ ”

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