Wham! Art world whacked by George Michael’s legacy
Some 170 works, with a value of up to £9m, including a couple of Damien Hirsts, to be auctioned for charity
The art collection of singer and songwriter George Michael, who died in 2016, has been touring the world this month, stopping off in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. This month it lands at Christie’s London, where it will be sold at auction on March 14, and online from March 8-15.
It’s a big collection – some 170 works with an estimated value of £6m to £9m. A couple of Damien Hirsts could make more than £1m; works by lesser-known artists should fetch around £2,000.
The collection is focused almost entirely on British contemporary art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when the so-called Young British Artists – led by Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Sarah Lucas – overturned art world protocol and the long-standing dominance of US art with a succession of shocking, irreverent artworks. Whether they still carry the same weight is one of the issues the sale raises.
The period for comparison is narrow – 95% of the works in the auction were bought between 2006 and 2008, when the market was booming (there are no doubt hundreds more in the foundation that Michael set up in Dallas in 2007 to promote British art in the US).
At that time, he must have been the most active contemporary British art buyer in London, patronising dozens of galleries, from market leaders such as White Cube, Sadie Coles and Gagosian, to smaller enterprises in the East End such as Hales and Vilma Gold.
It is probably no coincidence that these years were also big earners for him professionally speaking, as he embarked on a worldwide tour to celebrate his 25 years in the music business and promote his greatest hits album. The tour reportedly earned him £48.5m. The amazing thing is how he ever found the time to look at and buy so much art.
The answer is his then boyfriend, Kenny Goss. The two had been together since 1996 but it was not until 2003, when Michael had returned from the US to live in London, that they bought their first YBA artwork, a bronze gorilla by Angus Fairhurst.
It was a sign of what was to come. In 2006 they bought their first major work – a stripe painting by Bridget Riley for about $250,000 – and also the first of many works by Emin from Jay Jopling’s White Cube Gallery.
Emin then introduced Michael and Goss to her coterie of artists. One of these was Michael Craig-Martin, an older artist and teacher often credited as the godfather of the YBAs. Craig-Martin met Goss at the Tracey Emin exhibition in the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2007, while Michael was on tour.
Shortly afterwards, Goss took Michael to Craig-Martin’s studio. “[Michael] was relaxed, happy, and we chatted about art, his and mine,” recalls Craig-Martin. Two works – one of a urinal, another of a pair of handcuffs – reminded him of his arrest in 1998 for performing a lewd act in a public lavatory in Beverly Hills, and he bought them.
“Typically, George found humour in his own difficulties,” says Craig-Martin. The two subsequently became close friends and, in 2008, Michael bought a third Craig-Martin painting with letters SEX emblazoned across it, to make up a kind of triptych.
But, says Craig-Martin, it was Goss who did most of the leg work. “Everyone knew Kenny,” he says.
Less academic than David Bowie’s art collection, and less focused on a single medium, as Elton John’s was with photography, Michael and Goss began their collection by buying art they liked and that amused them. After a time, though, according to their adviser, Aphrodite Gonou, they wanted to expand their vision to create something more meaningful, which would support artists. The Goss-Michael Foundation was founded, to make exhibitions and raise funds for charity, as well as house their collection. Michael donated millions to charity and some of his purchases were at charity sales, where he bought without regard to profit and often way over estimate. These works are all now estimated to make significant losses. Cristian Albu, senior specialist and director in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, acknowledges that the auction could test the YBA market, but believes artists such as Rebecca Warren, Cecily Brown, Antony Gormley and Emin continue to have strong followings. The Hirst market went down after 2008, but has now stabilised.
Michael, though, would probably have cared less about that than the charitable causes the sale will support.
• The complete collection will be open to public view at Christie’s King Street, London from March 9-14, with the sale taking place on the evening of March 14; christies.com
– © The Daily Telegraph