Most people know Michael Crichton as the guy who threw over his medical practice after hitting the big time as author with a knack for penning movie-ready novels, first with The Andromeda Strain, then with Jurassic Park and State of Fear. The freakishly tall (6’9″) but good-looking doctor (named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1992) was a workaholic who, besides churning out novels and screenplays, created the long-running TV hit, ER In 1994, he became the only creative artist ever to have works simultaneously topping #1 at the charts in TV, film, and book sales (with ER, Jurassic Park, and Disclosure).
Needless to say, this best-selling bounty (did we mention that his novels sold more than 150 million copies worldwide?) netted Crichton a few discretionary bucks, which he channeled toward his passion for post-war and contemporary art. Which is where the auction house Christie’s comes in.
Last year, at the age of 66, Crichton died of throat cancer. He left behind four ex-wives, and a fifth woman, who was pregnant with his only son (he also has a daughter) at the time of his death. He also left behind an extraordinary art collection, featuring a “best of show” sampling of the greatest artists of the 20th century. It will all go under the gavel at Christie’s in New York on May 11.
A highlight of the collection is Jasper John’s Flag, 1960-1966, one of the first icons of Pop Art. Crichton and Johns became friends in 1973, when Crichton bought the flag from the artist. He became an avid Johns collector, and Johns asked Crichton to write the catalog for his retrospective at the Whitney in 1977. “It was unheard of for a writer to be asked to do this,” says Christie’s curator, Brett Gorvy, the International Co-Head of Post War and Contemporary Art at Christies New York, with whom Crichton developed a very close relationship. “Flag” has a pre-sale estimate of $10 million to $15 million, but Christie’s believes it will set a new world record for the artist. “It will go substantially higher, given that the work is so superb and rare … and coming from someone who understood the artist,” says Gorvy.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). Figures in Landscape. Painted in 1977. Estimate: $2,500,000-3,500,000.
One of Johns’s flags sold recently to Steven A. Cohen, the Greenwich, CT hedge fun king famous for his own mind-boggling art collection. That flag, which is twice the size of the one in Crichton’s collection, sold for $110M. The only other equally important flag in private hands is owned by David Geffen, making this “Flag,” a hot property for art collectors looking for Art Basel cocktail party bragging rights.
Left: Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). Studio Painting. Executed in 1960-1961. Estimate: $6,000,000-9,000,000. Right: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Femme et fillettes. Painted on April 20, 1961. Estimate: $5,500,000-7,500,000.
That optimism is not so far-fetched, given last week’s sale at Christie’s of a 1932 Picasso, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” for $106.5M, a world record-breaking price for an art work sold at auction, which had hedge fund moguls battling Russian oligarchs for the juicy prize.
Other highlights of the sale include works by Jeff Koons, Andreas Gursky, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
Given the extraordinary quality of the paintings, one of the most amazing discoveries is that Crichton himself was the force behind the collection, not some trained art adviser. “Crichton had a very good eye,” says Gorvy. “He would have a visceral reaction to a painting.”
Mark Tansey (b. 1949). Push/Pull. Painted in 2003. Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000.
Crichton would do an enormous amount of research into an artist before buying, he says, but if he showed up at the gallery and didn’t have instant chemistry with the piece, he’d pass on it — no matter its investment potential.
“I would know instantly when he walked in as to what he’d buy,” Gorvy told Fast Company at the auction’s preview. “You could tell from his body language.”
Once, Gorvy said, Crichton was interested in a specific Hockney painting that was being put up for sale at Christie’s in London. He and his wife traveled for two days, from Los Angeles, to see the painting. “He walked in, took one look, and said, ‘No,'” Gorvy said. “His wife was furious.”
Once he acquired a work, he would shuffle it around with his other acquisitions at his house in L.A. “He wanted to keep them fresh to his eye,” Gorvy says.
[Portrait by Todo Arte]