Moving the Man: Sotheby’s Bowie/Collector Preview

Sotheby's Bowie/Collector

“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could buy sprouts and a Jeff Koons in the same place?” Bowie mused during an interview back in 1995, tucked somewhere in an anonymous gallery. With an idle tap of his chin, he adds “—which may not be too far away, judging by his prices.”

Whatever his thoughts on the accessibility of art, the late David Bowie amassed an impressive collection of artwork including paintings, sketches, and sculptures that easily cost more than a metric ton of sprouts. During his lifetime he actively loaned pieces to museums and collections, happy to share the pieces that brought him such happiness, but the public finally got a chance to view his collection in full this fall thanks to Sotheby’s, who displayed the work in multiple cities prior to their sale, titled Bowie/Collector.


On paper, Bowie collected Post-War British Art, but Bowie was never a man to be neatly categorized: his collection contained examples of Contemporary African and American art, Surrealism, and Italian design. In fact, very few pieces seemed to “go” together, let alone fit a theme. Brightly colored large-scale paintings hung beside small sketched studies, bronze sculptures rested on pedestals beside futuristic dayglo furniture. If there’s any common thread between what seem like radically different pieces in Bowie’s eclectic collection, it’s the simple fact that they moved him. Art was a passion, and it’s that passion that holds the collection together.

In this way, Bowie’s collection is much like his career: varied and diverse, at times scattered and downright strange, not always executed with the best technique or foremost skill, but pursued with enthusiasm because of a genuine emotional response. As an artist, Bowie was prolific, writing, performing, and producing music for more than fifty years in addition to pursuits in acting and painting. His work touched millions of people, created a soundtrack for so many memories, became the catalyst for so many emotions. Considering his own power to move, Sotheby’s preview seemed like a rare and precious opportunity to see what moved the man behind the icon.

La Condition Humaine

Standing in front of Méret Oppenheimer’s La Condition Humaine, one of the four hundred pieces being sold at Sotheby’s in London this November, one can’t help but wonder whether the piece appealed to the same frenetic neon desperation that produced “Be My Wife,” or “Always Crashing In The Same Car.” Frank Auerbach’s Head of Gerda Boehm recalls the discordant synthesizers of “Ashes to Ashes,” and again the thought creeps in—did the heaps of paint on canvas evoke the same feeling in Bowie that drove him to write the song?

Head of Gerda Boehm

Sotheby’s did not provide dates of acquisition for any of the pieces, though it would certainly help to give fans a better idea of Bowie’s relationship to the works themselves. Such dates may become available in the exhibition catalog, currently available for preorder to ship some time in October. In the meantime, the only item on which no one needs to speculate is 1966 radio phonograph designed by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglione. Set beneath a nearly life-sized still from the 1979 “DJ” music video, Bowie’s well-loved phonograph undoubtedly played countless LPs, inspiring so many evolutions we’ve come to recognize in his own music. But art isn’t the only thing on the gallery walls: listed beside the phonograph are Bowie’s 25 Albums That Could Change Your Life, a list spanning nearly 70 years containing everything from chanson to electronic to comedic novelty. It seems to only further the feeling that in the end, it seemed what mattered most to Bowie was not collecting trends or making tastes, but inspiring passions and evoking emotions.