In the two years since he died, we’ve learnt more and more about the occasionally troubled private life of George Michael. Now an auction and accompanying exhibition in London give an insight into one of the musician’s big enthusiasms – visual art.
The coincidence in timing was perfect.
In the late 1980s, George Michael’s lucrative solo career was taking off post-Wham!
And at the same time the media and art-buying public were fascinated by a new phenomenon attracting levels of coverage normally associated with major rock-stars – the Young British Artists.
The best-known YBAs included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Their names became familiar to the general public to a degree which hadn’t been seen in British art for years.
By his mid-20s, Michael was in a position to buy art extensively and at the highest levels.
Cristian Albu of auctioneers Christie’s says Michael became a truly serious collector from 2004 onwards.
“And it stretched all the way to 2009 – that was the most intense period,” he tells BBC News.
“I think his finesse as an artist in music made it very easy for George Michael to make the journey into visual art. And it all started with Tracey Emin.
“She was doing a commission for a particular collector and George happened to be staying with the collector. So George knocked at the door where he knew Tracey was working and asked to be allowed in. But Tracey said she was far too busy and George said, ‘well fine but I’m George Michael’ – and Tracey said ‘I don’t care who you are, just go away.
“So the relationship had a tricky start but eventually they were close and it was Tracey who introduced George to the work of the YBAs, who mainly had studied at Goldsmiths College in London under Michael Craig-Martin. So without an Emin influence probably there wouldn’t have been this exhibition and this auction now.”
The 60 most important works from the singer’s collection are to be auctioned at Christie’s in London on Thursday (14 March).
The piece with the biggest advance estimate (up to £1.5 million) is by Damien Hirst.
The Incomplete Truth features a white dove suspended in formaldehyde in a large glass case.
It’s the first thing you see as you enter the pre-sale exhibition. (The public can visit Christie’s in St James’s London to see the artwork for themselves until the day of the auction.)
In addition, an online auction is already underway for the 100 or so other works described by Christie’s as “more accessibly priced”.
A few of these carry advance estimates in the low thousands of pounds – although the George Michael association could boost the selling price hugely.
But Albu insists that the estimated prices haven’t been boosted because of the connection.
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He says the singer was an active and informed buyer.
“I’m sure he had advisors but I think he pleased himself and made up his own mind what he liked. And you can see that he had a sense of humour.
“We all remember that 20 years ago he was caught doing certain things in a public park in Los Angeles which then came to involve the police. Later he was dealing with Michael Craig-Martin and he bought three paintings called Urinal and Sex and Handcuffs. So he transformed his own experience into a triptych of humour.”
Craig-Martin was also commissioned by the singer in 2007 to create a computerised portrait of him which features in the sale. It’s set up so that the colours on the screen change constantly
Not all of the pieces for sale represent the YBA era; longer established artists crop up too. There’s a 1997 image by Gilbert George (honorary godfathers of the YBAs) called Shadow Blind.
And there’s one of Bridget Riley’s attractive striped images which used to hang above Michael’s fireplace in Texas – Cristian Albu speculates that maybe Michael was attracted by the title, Songbird.
But not all of the images can have hung on the singer’s walls at the same time. So do we know which other favourites were permanently on show?
“You have to remember that George had homes in England and in the USA. There’s also the Goss-Michael Foundation in Dallas, where some of the art had its home,” Albu says.
That foundation was set up by the singer and his boyfriend Kenny Goss.
All the proceeds of the sale will go to charities. Other artists whose work is for sale include David Bailey, Mat Collishaw, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Sarah Lucas and Chris Ofili.
Albu doesn’t deny bidders will be attracted by the celebrity connection.
But he says the fact his choice of art was so focused in its origins means it sums up perfectly a phase of British art which seems recent, yet is on the verge of becoming history.
The George Michael Collection will be auctioned at Christie’s in London on the evening of 14 March. The work is open for viewing daily until 3pm on Thursday.
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