Inside David Bowie's Extraordinary Art Auction at Sotheby's

AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File
Sotheby's employees lift the painting "Air Power" by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby's in London.

Ten months to the day after his passing, the bulk of David Bowie’s personal art collection -- some 400 works in total -- went on the block at a three-part auction at Sotheby’s on Nov. 10-11, fetching a grand total of $41.1 million.

More than $30 million was sold on the first night alone, where well-heeled (and furred) attendees raised paddles against bids submitted around the world via phone and the Web. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Air Power” was the evening’s -- and the auction’s -- top seller at $8.8 million, trouncing the pre-auction estimate of $3.3 million to enthusiastic applause.

Frank Auerbach’s “Head of Gerda Boehm” ($4.8 million); Basquiat’s “Untitled” ($3 million); Peter Lanyon’s “Witness” ($1 million); and Damien Hirst’s collaborative painting with Bowie, “Beautiful, hallo, space-boy painting” ($990,000) rounded out the top five.

More than half of the artists represented in the sale -- 59 in sum -- set sales records, underlining what a premium Bowie’s ownership lent to the works.

Bowie, who passed away at age 69 after a battle with cancer, was a passionate and knowledgeable collector with a taste for British contemporary art, who preferred to collect pieces that evoked a strong emotional response over those that promised a sound financial return. Many directly inspired his own art.  Of the Auerbach painting, he told The New York Times in 1998: "The work can magnify the kind of depression I’m going through. It will give spiritual weight to my angst. Some mornings I’ll look at it and go... 'My God, yeah! I want to sound how that looks!'

“Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own,” he added. “It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it. It can change the way I feel in the mornings. The same work can change me in different ways, depending on what I’m going through.”

The auction follows an unusually long and far-reaching promotional tour, which saw key pieces from the collection travel across Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong before returning to London for a 10-day exhibition open to the public. More than 55,000 people came to see the assembled works before they went to their new owners across the globe.

“Bowie had a huge fan base, and we wanted to make sure as many people [could] see this as possible,” Simon Hucker, senior specialist in modern and post-war British art at Sotheby’s, told Billboard earlier this year.