When, shortly after his untimely death from throat cancer in 2008, the news broke that Michael Crichton’s estate would be auctioning off the bestselling author’s Pop-heavy collection of art it prompted, in many circles, a collective “ Huh?”
For the art world, however, Crichton’s passion for painting was well established—he wrote what is widely considered to be the treatise on Jasper Johns in the late 1970s, shortly after befriending the artist (and others) at a print shop in Los Angeles. But lesser known was that Crichton bought directly from his friends, amassing works by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, David Hockney, and, of course, Johns long before most others did. By the 2000s, he had become a regular on the ARTnews Top 200 list of collectors, adding considerably to his collection in the late-1990s (presumably after those Hollywood megaresiduals started rolling in), with pieces by more emerging artists supplementing his considerable stock of ‘60s- and ‘70s-era Pop.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of Michael Crichton’s Private Art Collection
The Crichton auction will be folded into Christie’s New York’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 11, with some 100 lots (about 80 percent of the author’s holdings) hitting the block. An exhibition is on view at the auction house’s Rockefeller Center headquarters until then. Not only is it one of the most hotly anticipated sales of the season, but certainly the most surprising.
Crichton, it seems, left many beneficiaries (wife No. 5 was six months pregnant at the time of the writer’s death) and the sale is strictly business—the most efficient way of getting everyone a piece of his estate. Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international co-head of post-war and contemporary art, said estimates have been set intentionally low to meet market demand and spark interest. With lots ranging from drawings for a few thousand dollars for a Karen Kilimnik drawing to a 1960s Johns Flag estimated at $10 million-$15 million, the auction house is expecting to rake in twice its modest $50 million sale estimate.
As for the art—there are surprises there too. The first being the sheer range of works on view: museum-caliber Picassos, readymades, miniatures, Agnes Martin’s Minimalist grids, Liza Lou’s bedazzled cigar box, exquisite drawings by Oldenburg, massive combines by Rauschenberg, early stainless steel figurines by Jeff Koons, and two of Warhol’s Maos.
“When you look at the collection you see this instinct for beauty but also this instinct for quality,” Gorvy says. “Everything is domestic in scale and there for his own pleasure—he didn’t need to have the biggest, he just wanted to have the best.”
Crichton’s gravitation toward a certain sort of Pop is significant, too. For Johns, stock imagery like the American flag became a way of teasing out something deeper on a technical, process-driven level—with the subject itself taken care of, the artist could focus his efforts on texture, line, those rich, waxy surfaces. Some will appreciate that particular sort of depth, others will just see a flag (and there’s nothing wrong with that either). Crichton’s oeuvre could be similarly divisive. It’s research-driven, but populist, often striking a rare balance between accessible intellect and Hollywood-ready adrenaline.
Say what you will about Congo and Jurassic Park, but it isn’t your typical pop fare—nor are Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day-dotted abstractions (an especially large and excellent example of which is expected to go for $2.5 million-$3.5 million), nor Oldenburg’s melting popsicle of alphabet soup (priced at $200,000-$300,000).
When it came to living with his collection, Crichton liked to keep things flexible, frequently rotating his works to give each of his masterpieces its due spotlight and consideration. The one piece that kept its prime perch in the author’s bedroom was Johns’ Flag—and given Crichton’s deep personal connection to both Johns and the work itself, it’s almost a shame to see it go.
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.