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David Bowie's personal art collection goes up for auction




Sotheby’s is auctioning off about 400 items from Bowie’s estate, including this vintage stereo.
Sotheby’s is auctioning off about 400 items from Bowie’s estate, including this vintage stereo.
Collin Friesen

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If you’ve ever wanted to own a painting or some furniture that once belonged to David Bowie, your opportunity has arrived.

Sotheby’s is auctioning about 400 items from the Thin White Duke’s personal collection, which raises the question: Is art more valuable if it was owned by someone famous?  

Bowie’s couch, dubbed the "Big Sur Sofa," is part of the auction. It's a fun, colorful, modern piece designed by L.A. artist Peter Shire.

SHIRE: The sofa started life as a commission for a dentist in Boston. And so it has all those teeth on it, and then the sides that are round are like the cotton things they shove in your mouth. That piece was designed in ‘85 or ‘86. You can still buy one.

 

Shire says he wasn’t part of the original sale, had never met Bowie, and didn’t know his work was coming up for auction until it popped up online.  

But despite that less-than-cinematic backstory, Sotheby’s is hoping Shire’s sofa will sell for around $8,000. That's $2,000 more than you’d pay for the very same non-celebrity owned version you can find online, which kind of turns the whole “provenance” thing on its head: Normally, art is valued by who made it, not who owned it.

Simon Hucker is a senior art specialist at Sotheby’s. He was on hand for the L.A. preview of the Bowie sale, which features works by British artists Damien Hirst and Frank Auerbach, and a piece by the late American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that should go for around $4.5 million.

 

Bowie was known to pick up pieces of outsider art as well. Case in point, two drawings from a patient at an old Viennese mental asylum, which Hucker says Bowie visited with music producer Brian Eno.

HUCKER: They let the patients have free range on the building, they paint the outside of it. For David, he was always interested in directness of expression. As an artist and musician he was looking for that kind of directness. And after the visit, he and Eno made the album "Outside," which will be considered one of his best.

Walking through the pre-auction display, it seems as if Bowie’s taste in art was a lot like his music — always evolving, expanding, and maybe just as hard to pin down as the extra value art acquires if the previous owner was a celebrity.

Sotheby’s says it doesn’t take the notoriety of the seller into account when they set the opening bids, but the auction house is clearly hoping people will be willing to pay a premium for items that have a connection to the music icon. 

HUCKER: The financial thing is not a consideration, but it’s not the be all and end all. In the end, will people bid more? Who knows, we’ll see … for me, if I fell in love with a picture and it also happened to be owned by one of the coolest people of the 20th Century, I’d probably put my hand up one more time.

 

Back at his Echo Park studio, Peter Shire says it’s great that his creation has popped up in the auction. But he likes to think that over time, any works of art will come to be valued on their own merit, not just for who once owned, or possibly lounged on them.

SHIRE: How long is that gonna last? Does it get a bronze plaque?: So-and-so sat here. After a while, its intrinsic value is what carries. This town is driven by celebrity, it has a value that supersedes its own value.



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