Christie’s to auction off Michael Crichton’s art collection

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When artwork that once belonged to the late bestselling author Michael Crichton hits the auction block in May, the works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso and others will combine for one of the most high-profile art sales of the season.

The sale, being organized by Christie’s, will feature approximately 100 works of art, or about 80% of the writer’s personal collection. The sale also comes with a back story that, given Crichton’s main line of work, would make a good novel.

People the world over are familiar with Crichton the writer, from his bestselling novels such as “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain,” the blockbuster movies often made from them, or the television series he created, “ER,” which ran on NBC for 15 years.

Perhaps less familiar to his fans is that Crichton was an art collector who chose to hang an encaustic rendering of the American flag by Johns, a close friend, over his bedroom fireplace.

Christie’s said that the writer purchased “Flag” (1960-66) more than 30 years ago directly from the artist and that the painting has never been on the public market. Until it was featured in previews of the work to be auctioned -- including a preview at Christie’s that ends Friday -- it was last shown 18 years ago at a Pop art survey at London’s Royal Academy.

The author’s collection is highly esteemed by experts, and in 2006 Crichton was ranked among the world’s “top 200” buyers by ARTnews magazine.

“His taste was just impeccable, very classic, and always about quality,” Deborah McLeod, director of the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, said in an e-mail. “He didn’t consult 100 people or look for consensus. If the work was right for the collection, he’d pull the trigger.”

Brett Gorvy, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, said he expects the sale to bring in about $100 million. The money will go to Crichton’s widow, children and other heirs and to pay estate taxes.

The rules of inheritance for wealthy individuals such as Crichton are rarely simple, and they have provided drama in this case, which combines vast wealth and valuable works of art.

Crichton’s 2007 will provided for the vast majority of his assets, including his art, to be placed in a private trust benefiting his fifth wife, Sherri, his then-teenage daughter from a prior marriage and other family members, friends and employees as well as a charitable foundation.

At the time of his death from cancer the following year, his wife was six months’ pregnant with their son, John Michael Todd. The will did not provide for the unborn child.

After the boy’s birth, Sherri Crichton said her husband had been updating his estate plan to include the child, and she petitioned the court to designate him an heir. The author’s daughter from his fourth marriage, Taylor -- now a 21-year-old college student living in New York -- fought the move, but in October, a Superior Court judge in L.A. ruled that her infant half brother was entitled to a third of their father’s estate.

The addition of another beneficiary threw off the complex system Crichton established, but on Monday, Judge Michael Levanas signed off on a plan to rejigger distribution of assets.

Adam Streisand, the attorney who represents Sherri Crichton and her son, said the May art sale would have been necessary to pay the bequests and cover taxes regardless of the need to restructure the trust.

“Art is really not the easiest thing in the world to value, and the auction and the sale will give us liquid assets in which we can start to distribute the estate,” Streisand said. “Everybody agrees that it should occur.”

Because most of the author’s property was held in private trusts, the estate’s worth and the amount various heirs stand to inherit are not known publicly. Streisand declined to estimate the estate’s value, saying it was dependent on the proceeds of the auction.

Gorvy, of Christie’s, said that he had been in discussion with Crichton’s family for about a year and that the decision to bring the works to auction was made early this year. He said the choice of what to sell was made primarily by family members, with recommendations from the auction house.

In 2006, Crichton joined the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and even lent the museum artwork for the inaugural 2008 display in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. But he apparently did not leave any art to LACMA or any other museum.

One director of a prominent Southern California art museum said it is “fairly common practice” for board members to donate art from their personal collections. “There’s a distinct tax advantage to heirs, but generosity is still involved,” said the director.

A LACMA spokeswoman said the museum will not be participating in the auction for Crichton’s collection.

The auction, which will take place in New York, will also include Claes Oldenburg’s “Three Way Plug Soft Sculpture,” a work dating from 1970 that the novelist commissioned from the artist; Andreas Gursky’s 1999 photograph “ Chicago Board of Trade”; Ed Ruscha’s 1964 painting “Voltage”; and two large-scale works by the late Rauschenberg -- “Studio Painting” (1960-61) and “Trapeze” (1964).

Christie’s said that museums have already expressed interest in the Crichton sale -- including some in the U.S. -- but that private collectors were likely to acquire a significant portion of the work.

Times staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.