What happened to Paul Allen’s Northwest art collection

Yoshiko Yap

As the co-founder of Microsoft, one of the world’s richest men and a prominent Seattle philanthropist dedicated to the environment, brain science and the arts, Paul Allen made history when he was alive. He also did in death, when, last November, the sale of his museumworthy art collection brought in $1.6 billion and set the record for the most expensive art auction in history. 

On Thursday, another seven paintings from Allen’s collection are up for sale at Christie’s as part of the auction house’s 20th Century Evening Sale in New York. The collection consists of six landscapes and flower close-ups by David Hockney and Georgia O’Keeffe and a watercolor on paper by Edward Hopper. The works are estimated to bring in at least $30.6 million, but could go for more if last fall’s sale is any indication. 

Both the November and May sales are part of a larger unwinding of Allen’s multibillion dollar estate after his 2018 death. According to his wishes, the proceeds will go to charity — though which charities and in what fashion has not yet been disclosed. 

Christie’s described this week’s sale of the seven remaining paintings as the “final chapter” of the Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection sale. 

But these artworks are not the only art pieces once owned by Allen that are showing up on the auction block. Much more quietly, the estate seems to have been shedding artworks by local artists that Seattle galleries and artists say he purchased during his lifetime. Until reached for comment by The Seattle Times, most didn’t know that these artworks had sold weeks before Christie’s fall sale at a different auction house — and without mentioning the Allen name. 

This handful of works isn’t the only art Allen purchased locally: According to gallerists and artists, he also purchased major sculptures and other art for his many properties — including a small bronze sculpture by Gerard Tsutakawa and drawings of World War II planes by Gregory Blackstock, according to Seattle gallerists John Braseth and Greg Kucera — but, today, their whereabouts remain a mystery. 

Taken together, this reconstruction of some of the artwork Allen purchased locally offers a glimpse into the size and depth of his collection — which has remained a closely guarded secret for decades — and brings into focus the true footprint of his outsize impact on the Northwest art scene. 

Anonymous listings 

For Seattle painter Gillian Theobald, Paul Allen’s purchase of her “Night (Grove),” a small, semiabstract painting of a dark and moody twilight sky from 1998, was a meaningful boost. As a recent Seattle transplant in the late ‘90s, she’d found it challenging to find inroads with the local art world. Selling to Allen, she said, felt like a stamp of approval. 

For years, she’s wondered what Allen did with the painting, assuming it perhaps hung somewhere on a “typing pool wall,” but “I knew I’d probably never know about it,” she said.  

Now, more than two decades on and nearly five years after Allen’s death, she knows this: on Sept. 15, 2022, the painting sold for $1,562.50 via Heritage Auctions, a Dallas-based auction house that sells art as well as coins, movie memorabilia and sports collectibles. 

There hadn’t been much fanfare. No news releases touting Allen’s philanthropic endeavors and his penchant for “acquiring the world’s most iconic artists.” No long lines outside, in contrast to last fall’s auction, when hundreds lined up outside Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters to get a glimpse of the masterpieces before they disappeared into private hands again. The listing didn’t even mention Allen’s name. Instead, it noted the “present owner” acquired it from Seattle’s Linda Hodges Gallery. (A representative for Heritage Auctions declined to comment.) 

It is not unusual for estates to de-accession, and private collections are not obligated to disclose this to artists, art dealers or the public. Nor is it all that surprising in the case of Allen’s estate, which is famously selling off its holdings. But the anonymous nature of the sales and the apparent decision to go with an out-of-state (but national) auction house have some artists and dealers scratching their heads. 

“That whole thing seems so strange. Especially given the high profile that Paul Allen had as a collector and as a supporter of arts,” said Braseth of Woodside/Braseth Gallery. 

“It is public knowledge that Paul had a desire to share art with the community as evidenced by his endeavors such as Art Fair, public art installations and MoPOP,” a spokesperson for Vulcan, the umbrella company for the Allen empire,​​ said in a statement. “Beyond that, we can offer no further information as it relates to his private assets.” 

The mystique  

Secrecy has long shrouded Allen’s art collection, which he started in the early ‘90s and built out over the following decades with the help of art advisers and a professional team. “The mystique around him was just incredible,” said Braseth. “This veil of secrecy.” 

That veil was pierced briefly when Allen started publicly sharing masterpieces from his collection (think: Canaletto, Manet, Monet) at the Allen-founded MoPOP, or Museum of Pop Culture, then called the Experience Music Project; the Seattle Art Museum; and his own short-lived South Lake Union art space Pivot Art + Culture, among others. 

Last year’s auction at Christie’s offered the most extensive peek into Allen’s collection to that date ​​ (the auction included two local artworks purchased at the Seattle galleries of Greg Kucera and James Harris: an Alden Mason painting that sold for $189,000 and a Gary Hill sculpture that went for $40,320). But some pointed out that this wasn’t all he’d amassed over the years. According to Artnet News’ Katya Kazakina, the remaining trove — if it hasn’t been sold via other means yet — could be worth $500 million.  

And that’s likely not counting all of the local artwork he collected over the years. “We agreed long ago during his lifetime not to discuss these purchases openly,” said Kucera, “at least, I’m presuming during his lifetime.” 

At one point, this came to a humorous point when, in Kucera’s telling, a UPS driver walked into the gallery, where a Deborah Butterfield show of sculptures of bronze horses seemingly made out of driftwood was on view. The driver then loudly exclaimed to a group of visiting collectors, “Hey, I’ve seen one of these horses at Paul Allen’s place on Mercer Island. Did he buy it from you?” 

Kucera recalls later driving by Allen’s estate only to see the sculpture — an homage to the Appaloosa horses of the Nez Perce people — in the garden, visible from the street (near a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, among others, Kucera recalls). In a phone call, the Montana-based Butterfield said she’d noticed the work hadn’t been in the Christie’s auction. “I sure hope the family kept it,” she said. 

Seattle Art Fair

The Seattle Art Fair, which Allen founded in 2015 to help Seattle rival major art world events like Art Basel, was his brainchild and in many ways, his baby. According to local gallerists, Allen often purchased work from regional galleries at the fair during the VIP previews, after touring the booths with a cadre of advisers. 

Washington artist Lisa Gilley, who had a painting of Upper Palouse Falls up at Woodside/Braseth during the fair’s inaugural run, remembers taking a quick spin through the surrounding booths right as the VIP preview opened. Upon returning to the booth a few minutes later, she noticed a red dot on the painting’s wall tag: It had been sold to Paul Allen, she said. “I think part of it was to help promote his local [art community],” she said. “But also, I think he was trying to help the artists that were up and coming.” 

“I felt like it was kind of giving back to the local galleries by purchasing some work,” said Seattle-based artist Jared Rue, whose idyllic painting of swirling water that hides a darker truth of water contamination was also purchased by Allen from Woodside/Braseth Gallery during the 2015 Seattle Art Fair, he said. 

Rue’s painting sold for $1,250 to an anonymous bidder last September during Heritage Auctions’ Contemporary Art Within Reach sale that also included Theobald’s “Night (Grove).” That auction also included a small, blue cedar sculpture by Peter Millett, purchased at Greg Kucera Gallery by the anonymous “present owner,” which sold for $750. (Kucera confirmed the work was purchased by the umbrella organization for Allen’s collection.) A ceramic sculpture by Seattle artist Jamie Walker, who said his gallery, Traver Gallery, sold it to Allen in the early 2000s, sold for $3,000 during another September sale at Heritage Auctions

It is unlikely that these artworks were owned by someone other than the “present owner” listed as having purchased the works directly from these galleries, which many say is Allen. If there had been another owner in between, the standard expectation would be for the auction house to list that. 

Heritage Auctions has also sold, or is selling, other works purchased by an anonymous “present owner” or “private collection” from other Seattle galleries like James Harris, including a colorful semiabstract painting by California artist Squeak Carnwath, and a resin-coated painting made out of M&M pigment, Kool-Aid pigment, and Milky Way candy bar by Martha Benzing of North Carolina. Some of these paintings have similar stickers on the back with a photo and a red collection number, suggesting they come from the same collection. (Harris declined to comment.) 

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The September 2022 Heritage Auctions sales also included works by other Northwest artists like April Surgent, Preston Singletary, Whiting Tennis and John Grade, though it’s not clear whether they were owned by Allen. Two metal sculptures by the Seattle-based Brandon Zebold, which Braseth said were purchased by Allen from his gallery at the Seattle Art Fair, sold last September as well.  

Braseth expressed surprise about the sale of Rue’s painting. “A painting that size sells for $22,500 to $24,000 routinely,” he said. “I don’t have a clue why they’d sell artworks at an out-of-state auction by a young/midcareer regional artist from the Pacific Northwest. It doesn’t make fiscal sense.” So why didn’t the estate reach out to him so he could sell it to one of his clients for a much better price, he wondered. Plus, why not advertise Allen’s name, which would likely increase the price? 

“I’m a big believer that people are rational,” said Brandeis University economics professor Kathryn Graddy, who researches the economics of the arts and art auctions. “So if they’re being sold through a different venue, it’s because someone thought that other venue would achieve a greater return. Now, to me, it’s slightly strange that the provenance [with Allen’s name] isn’t there — because the provenance … is going to raise the value of those paintings.” 

While artists don’t make any money on auction sales, sale prices at auction can still impact their livelihood. Particularly for living artists who are still making work, auctions — the only way prices are made public, as opposed to private sales — can be potentially destabilizing if they’re lower than on the primary market, sometimes causing their work’s overall value to drop.

So while some artists regarded Allen’s purchase of their works as a boost at the time, the subsequent sale may have become an unpleasant boomerang for others. 

Questions remain 

But what happened to the other works Allen purchased? Could some of the pieces — including those by Seattle’s glass master Dale Chihuly that Allen once showed off in a “60 Minutes” interview — have been sold with the many properties the estate has been selling, as Braseth and others suggested? (A representative for Chihuly declined to comment.)

It’s not unusual for artwork to sell with a high-value property, said Seattle real estate broker Tere Foster. For example, this may happen with sculptures because those can be hard and costly to move. “If the buyer is interested in that art, that could be added to the purchase price,” she said, speaking generally. 

Some artists are hoping their works don’t disappear into other private hands. “I’d much rather that the Allen Foundation sets up a fund to have a secondary Allen collection in Northwest art and that they actually make it available to the public,” said Walker. Scattering the works, he said, is a “missed opportunity.”

Gilley hopes her artwork could find its way to a museum to spread her message of saving fragile landscapes. “Ultimately, I’d like my work to be seen” by the wider public, she said. 

Phen Huang of Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery sold seven ceramic pieces by artist George Rodriguez — a tribute to Rodriguez’s Mexican heritage and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” — to Allen at the 2018 art fair, mere months before Allen’s death at the age of 65. She’s wondered for years where the artworks ended up. 

“Of course, I’m super curious,” she said. “And it’d be really lovely if they’re shared with an audience versus just secreted away.” 

Huang remembers an art handling company picking up the artworks from the gallery shortly after the fair to transport them to an undisclosed location. “I’ve never seen them again,” she said. 


This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

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