Unquestionably contemporary, the art collection that’s about to go on sale at Sotheby’s in London offers an insight into one of the great “eyes” of contemporary photography, a sensibility that lives in the moment.
The landmark auction contains major works by Cindy Sherman, Urs Fischer and the photographer Richard Prince, rare works by artists such as Tauba Auerbach, and notable paintings by the Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão and the Los Angeles-based artist Laura Owens, whose mid-career retrospective opens in November at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
All 400 works belong to the fashion photographer Mario Testino and all are being sold to support MATE, the museum he established in 2012 in Lima, Peru, his homeland, with the aim of providing Peruvian artists with a major platform for their work.
The sale, Shake It Up: Works from the Mario Testino Collection, takes place tomorrow and Thursday, and has been more than two years in the making. As Testino explains, one of the biggest challenges has been letting go of artworks he has been acquiring, in some instances, since the 1980s.
“I don’t know how I can communicate how hard it is for me to part with the works. It’s a big exercise to detach yourself from your belongings in order to satisfy greater ambitions. I’ve been collecting for over 25 years and I’ve never ever sold anything,” the photographer tells me.
“Today is the first time that I’ve decided to sell something because I can see a reason to sell. It’s allowing me to give back to the community that gave me everything.”
The man famous for capturing what we now think of as era-defining images of superstars such as Princess Diana, David Bowie, Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss has been collecting art ever since his photography started paying off.
Initially, Testino focused on photography; his very first purchase was an Angus McBean photograph of Vivien Leigh, but it wasn’t long before he ventured into the world of contemporary art, a place he now regards as the feeding ground for his imagination.
“As I was collecting photography, a friend of mine, Johnnie Shand Kydd, said: ‘I wanted to introduce you to Sadie Coles because you could carry on buying photography, but maybe buying not just photographers, but fine artists that use photography as their medium’,” Testino says.
“Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand at all what he meant, but slowly I got the gist that photography can be used in so many different ways. And it was a great learning curve for me because I was emulating a lot of photojournalists, in the sense that you look at something and you document it.”
Although Testino’s collection is profoundly personal – a work by Richard Prince used to hang above his bed and a painting by Anselm Kiefer used to hang in his kitchen – Coles has been one of the major influences on the photographer’s collecting habits, as George O’Dell, Sotheby’s head of sale for the auction, explains.
“There have been advisors and experts and there are certain galleries that Mario has been very loyal to that have given him the opportunity to take a chance and push himself and add a new dimension to the collection,” the auctioneer says.
“Sadie Coles’s gallery has been a huge influence: there are major pieces by Urs Fischer, Richard Prince, Ugo Rondinone and Victoria Morton, and you can see her eye and her hand and her vision as one of the influences that have helped to shape the collection and make it what it is now.”
As head of sale, O’Dell has been working on Shake It Up for two years with a team from Sotheby’s, as well as Testino’s representatives and, more recently, with the photographer himself. When he speaks about the collection, he sounds as much like a curator as he does a man dedicated to maximising sales, even if it is for a good cause.
“Mario’s collection runs between the public and the private, there’s also a performative aspect to it; he creates his own exhibitions and images for the covers of some of the most famous publications in the world,” O’Dell explains. “But there’s also a private side, the things that he reflects on at home when he isn’t behind the camera.”
O’Dell’s involvement with the sale began with a conversation and a valuation that then progressed to a proposal for the sale and an idea about how the event might be packaged, promoted and exhibited.
This includes the design and running order of the extensive catalogues that accompany the auction – there are three – as well as the look and feel of all of the sale’s online and video content, and the exhibition of the works in London, all of which had to be signed off by Testino.
Working with the collection for such a long time has allowed O’Dell to discern some of the influences Testino’s collection has had on his output.
“We tried to translate this in the catalogues, where we’ve interspersed Mario’s own images into the catalogue and you can see how the look or the feel of a particular painting or group of paintings informs or is in conversation with works in the collection,” O’Dell explains.
Some of these conversations are direct. A 2006 portrait of Kate Moss, lounging on Testino’s bed, features Prince’s Untitled (Girlfriend) just above the headboard, while Andreas Slominski’s xHGy14z, acquired from Sadie Coles’s gallery in 2008, features a Kate Moss portrait shot two years later in the background.
At first there also appears to be a noticeable similarity between a 1998 shoot from Rio de Janeiro for Allure that features nearly naked models, including Ana Beatriz Barros, Aurélie Claudel and Gisele Bündchen, and was gut ist, setzt sich durch, by Norbert Bisky, but the latter was only acquired by Testino in 2003.
If the comparison between a shot from 2012 of the model Isabeli Fontana in front of a baroque altar and Idris Khan’s Caravaggio … The Final Years (2006) appears credible, the connections drawn between a shot of heavily tattooed torsos taken for VMan in Los Angeles in 2008 and the vibrant magenta, luscious greens and ominous blacks of Sterling Ruby’s spray painting SP114 fail to convince.
“This collection is extremely contemporary, there are names here that are only just starting to bubble up that will be major names down the line,” O’Dell enthuses. “This is the collection of somebody who had their ear to the ground and who wasn’t afraid to take a chance.”
Testino was able to collect works from artists at the very start of their careers, which in turn means that, for a major celebrity auction, there are works on sale that can still be described as affordable. The cheapest lots have estimates starting at £400 (Dh1,940), which not only offers Testino fans the chance to become a part of the photographer’s history, but also attests to the breadth and generosity, in many cases, of the photographer’s collecting habits, which have helped to launch artistic careers in the same way that his pictures have helped publications and models.
“Mario collects works by artists that are challenging and may not be immediately easy, giving them a big break and an opportunity to sell a picture and to add a picture to his collection, which enables them to continue on their journey as an artist,” O’Dell says.
“His collecting contains acts of patronage, and that was certainly the spirit that informed MATE, both an idea of patronage and showing the collection. MATE was a chance to show the collection and bring international artists [to Peru] but also to show local artists, and give something back to his home.”
Shake It Up: Works from the Mario Testino Collection Auction to Benefit Museo MATE, Lima, Peru takes place in London tomorrow and Thursday. The Shake It Up/Online sale, featuring photographs from the Mario Testino Collection, is open until September 15