Discover a daring mix of 20th-century masters in this evocative Pacific island collection

Countless connections can be made between the home’s postwar and contemporary art, design, and photographs, which were assembled over 25 years

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Often the most inspiring collections are the ones that seamlessly blend unexpected objects together. It takes a fearless mind guided by intellect and intuition to dare to combine what has not before. One such collector’s diverse holdings — an assemblage of 20th-century design, photography and postwar and contemporary art ­— comprise Art of Collecting: A Pacific Island Connoisseur of Art and Design, a single-owner auction on 7 March at Christie’s New York, and Modern Collector: Design, Tiffany Studios, and Property from a Pacific Island Connoisseur, an online sale from 1-15 March. 

‘This is an exercise in illustrating how collecting can be an expression of personal taste that is as creative as the artist’s expression when they are making the artworks or design pieces,’ says Michael Jefferson, Christie’s International Senior Specialist and Senior Vice President of Design. ‘What is so special about this collector is how he made associations between disparate works of art and different media, eras and regions of the world, synthesising them into a very unified vision of 20th-century life. It becomes a guide for other collectors to get inspired and take chances with different categories.’

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Jack Pierson’s Tragedie hangs about Alberto Giacometti’s ‘Osselet’ floor lamps in the living room

While today, many collectors combine multiple genres, this connoisseur had been doing so for more than two decades, resulting in a uniquely balanced collection with makers reflecting a century of defining movements, from Vienna Secession designers and artists, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, to American Pop artists, Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana. ‘The collector honed in on this purely 20th-century vision, untethered from all that came before,’ says Darius Himes, Christie’s International Head of Photographs. With works by Horst P Horst, Edward Steichen, and Robert Frank, many of the collection’s photographs feature figures, offering a counterpoint to the hard-edged minimalism and geometric abstraction prevalent in the design and art.

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Left: Edward Steichen (1879–1973), Dixie Ray for Woodbury Soap, 1935. Gelatin silver print. Image: 9½ x 7½ in (24.1 x 19 cm.) sheet: 9 7/8 x 8 in (25 x 20.3 cm). Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Right: Georges Jouve (1910-1964), Vide Poche, c. 1955. Glazed ceramic. 2⅝ x 7¼ x 5⅛ in (6.7 x 18.4 x 13 cm). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Both offered in Art of Collecting: A Pacific Island Connoisseur of Art and Design on 7 March 2023 at Christie’s New York

It’s his embrace of not one, but many radical moments during the 20th-century that render him a ‘truly postmodern collector,’ adds AJ Kiyozumi, Christie’s Junior Specialist of Post-War and Contemporary Art. The collection was built specifically with the house and surrounding environment in mind — the shapes and spirit of the art and furnishings echo the diverse Pacific island landscape with its rugged mountains, volcanic rock and exotic plants and gardens seen just beyond the home’s windows.

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A custom George Nakashima chandelier hangs above a Nakashima table and chairs in the dining room, which provides views of the verdant gardens beyond

The collector viewed his Pacific island residence as his refuge, creating a harmony not just with the picturesque scenery outside but also with the mélange of functional and aesthetic works indoors. Titans of design, including Le Corbusier, Arne Jacobsen and Charlotte Perriand, meet images by legendary photographers Hiroshi Sugimoto, Helmut Newton and Paul Outerbridge, and renowned contemporary artists, such as Ed Ruscha, Mark Grotjahn, and Vik Muniz. According to Jefferson, the collector describes the way his holdings were assembled as ‘cultural driftwood.’

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The rocky shoreline outside of the collector’s Pacific Island home

‘It’s this idea that there are many different things adrift in the world, and they’re collecting on the shores of his island retreat, forming a large collage,’ says the specialist. Despite the sheer density of objects on view, the home still emits a sense of ease and intrigue, much like the organic surroundings. ‘This idea of “cultural driftwood” is a beautiful concept to describe the way of these different things came together, how they enhance each other and what kind of narratives you can pull out of that.’

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Atop a Nakashima cabinet are lamps and candlesticks by Tiffany Studios and a Victor Vasarely painting

The pairing of Victor Vasarely’s circa 1950 painting, Karim, centred between Tiffany Studios candlesticks and table lamps, both circa 1910, all atop George Nakashima’s four-door cabinet epitomise the unexpected combinations in the collector’s home, which he conceived independently of an interior designer or decorator. ‘He would rehang and move the pieces quite frequently, creating harmonies and synergies between different things,’ says Jefferson. 

He collects Tiffany Studios and French art glass in depth, and parallels can be made between his interest in functional lighting itself and luminosity as a subject in art. For example, the collection includes several works by American abstract painter, John McLaughlin, ‘a forefather of the Light and Space movement,’ notes Kiyozumi.

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Left: Vik Muniz’s, Standard Station (Night) makes direct reference to Ed Ruscha’s Pictures of Cars. Right: Ruscha’s Exit is intentionally placed by the stairwell to encourage interaction with the viewer

In this lofted hallway, Muniz’s, Standard Station (Night) makes direct reference to Ruscha’s iconic Standard Station works from the 1960s, an example of ‘art about art,’ as Jefferson puts it. Many of the works in the collection also have a cinematic sensibility and sense of nostalgia for the past. ‘Given the linear modernism of the design pieces, the figures of the photographs almost becomes this cast of characters that occupy the spaces like actors in a play,’ says Jefferson. ‘The collector is a connoisseur of theatre and cinema, and oftentimes the works he acquired are an extension of his sensibilities.’ 

Ruscha’s Exit makes further reference to film, but the choice to hang the work in the stairway adds a layer of engagement with the viewer. ‘The idea of exiting the room becomes referential to the physical space in a way that enhances one’s pleasure moving through the space. It becomes an active collection meant to be interacted with,’ says Jefferson.

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Amongst the myriad works in the living room are pieces by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Indiana, Ed Ruscha, and Gabriel-Argy Rousseau

Ruscha’s Ford Fairlane and Indiana’s Nine are two of many graphic black and white works in conversation in the living room — the colour theme carries through to the collection of black and white Georges Jouve ceramics. The collector had a particular fondness for Sugimoto’s photographs of architectural icons, such as the Chrysler Building, as pictured here, the United Nations Headquarters, and the Eiffel Tower, and the Bauhaus Stairway at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. ‘This demonstrates his appreciation of beauty in all forms, not just the photograph but also the buildings,’ says Himes. 

Above all, Jefferson believes it’s the collectors’ ‘adherence to high craft’ that unites the works in this space and throughout the home: ‘It’s the high craft of photography with Sugimoto, or the precise execution of these images by Indiana and Ruscha. You also have high craft with the pâte de verre technique by Gabriel-Argy Rousseau, illustrated in the layered glass objects on the credenza. This relates directly to the craftsmanship that we find with Scandinavian design or the work of Nakashima. There’s a high craft in how these artists and makers executed within the material constraints of each of the media that that they pursued.’

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Left: Tiffany Studios, 'Moorish' lantern, c. 1900. Favrile glass, patinated bronze. 37 in. (94 cm) drop, 12 in (30.5 cm) diameter. Sold for $88,200 in Art of Collecting: A Pacific Island Connoisseur of Art and Design on 7 March 2023 at Christie’s New York. Right: In the bedroom, a rounded Tiffany Studios lantern is in conversation with an Arne Jacobsen ‘Egg’ chair, Nakashima bed, and Horst P Horst photograph

‘How do Nakashima, Tiffany Studios, Scandinavian design and Horst all have a dialogue that isn’t jarring, but really natural?’ It’s a question Jefferson asks that this bedroom beautifully answers. The bulbous silhouette of the Tiffany Studios ‘Moorish’ lantern resonates with the Jacobsen ‘Egg’ armchair and ottoman, designed 60 years later, while the lantern’s cast bronze and art glass relate to the craftsmanship of the natural Nakashima headboard. The pattern and bold colour of the Horst photograph contrast the spare geometry of the room, while the sunglasses themselves mirror the lantern’s shape. 

It’s these countless connections that keep this collection alive and timeless. Reflecting on the connoisseur’s risk taking and uncanny intuition, Jefferson adds, ‘It’s having the courage to fail or make mistakes that then opens up opportunities that did not previously exist, leading to magical moments that can define a collection.’

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