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The Robin Williams Auction: On the Wall and Off the Wall

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

No one label seemed to fully describe Robin Williams, the actor and comedian who died in 2014; no one performance of his adequately encompasses all the talents he possessed. Even if you knew nothing about his work, you’d find it difficult to summarize him based solely on the things he owned. He was an avid collector of art: works by contemporary sculptors, street artists and outsider artists; of furniture and decorative art; of designer watches, toys, books and sports souvenirs; and of trinkets, trophies and memorabilia he accumulated in his wide-ranging entertainment career.

A portion of this eclectic cornucopia is coming up for sale on Oct. 4 at Sotheby’s, in an auction called “Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams.” Marsha Williams, the second of his three wives (they married in 1989 and divorced in 2010), is the mother of his son Cody and daughter, Zelda, and helped raise his son Zak from his first marriage; she was also a crucial collaborator of Mr. Williams’s, and was a producer of several of his films, including “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Marsha Williams has declined to talk to reporters about the sale, but, in an interview conducted for the Sotheby’s catalog, she said it was impossible to determine which of their objects her husband valued most. “Robin’s favorites were as mutable as he was,” she said. “It might be a different answer every day.”

Several months ago, Ms. Williams invited the Sotheby’s staff to her home in San Francisco to review potential items, some of which will be sold to benefit charities that she and Mr. Williams supported as well as his namesake scholarship at the Juilliard School. “What we are offering is by no means exhaustive, in terms of what the family owns,” said Nina del Rio, Sotheby’s vice chairman. “It’s this window into their life and what the kids grew up with, and what they were living around.”

Here is a closer look at some of the items and the stories behind them.

This Banksy canvas work is one of five pieces by the pseudonymous British street artist being sold in the Williams auction. Steve Lazarides, the British gallery owner who was Banky’s agent until 2008, recalled being introduced to Marsha Williams at a 2006 show in Los Angeles that significantly increased Banksy’s standing in America. “If people think that the Banksy thing is at a fever pitch now, at the Los Angeles show, it was completely insane,” Mr. Lazarides said in an interview. “We had tens of thousands of people visit the show in a three-day period. At that point, he owned the zeitgeist.”

It’s not hard to imagine why “Happy Choppers” would appeal to Mr. Williams, the “Good Morning, Vietnam” star, who was the son of a World War II veteran, performed frequently for American soldiers in the Middle East and had a lifelong obsession with toy soldiers. But as Mr. Lazarides explained, Bansky intended for the artwork to carry a darkly satirical message. “He made a sticker at that time that said, ‘Americans Working Overhead,’” Mr. Lazarides said. “It came at a time when there was a lot of — that lovely phrase you Americans use — ‘collateral damage,’ going on. I think it was a commentary on that at that time.”

Ms. Butterfield, the Montana-based artist, was invited by the Williamses to visit their ranch in Napa, Calif., and create three of her distinctive skeletal horse sculptures for each of the Williams children. “People often think commissions are constraining,” Ms. Butterfield said in an interview. “Artists can get pretty uptight when they’re told what to do. But I found these to be exciting.”

Using wood she found on the ranch, Ms. Butterfield said, “I chose Zelda’s piece to be made of manzanita, which was more delicate, and Zak’s piece was oak, more solemn and sturdy. Cody’s piece was made of madrone, this beautiful reddish wood with streaks of yellow and black.” Each cast-bronze sculpture, she said, takes a team of 20 people about three months to build.

Ms. Butterfield said it was fitting that these sculptures would eventually end up in different places. “I’ve made pieces which I consider to be one piece that should not be separated. But this was not the case here. Even though they’re part of a family, they’re also individual and it’s their job to go their separate ways.”

This painting, of a sailor in a rowboat navigating stormy waters, figures prominently in “Good Will Hunting,” the film for which Mr. Williams won his Academy Award for best supporting actor. It’s seen hanging in the office of his character, Dr. Sean Maguire, and said to be the doctor’s own creation. (The work is also criticized mercilessly by Matt Damon’s titular protagonist, who calls it a “muddled composition” and “a Winslow Homer rip-off,” along with some other unprintable disparagement.)

In fact, the watercolor was made by Mr. Van Sant, the film’s director, who holds a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design. In a recent interview, he said he modeled the artwork on “The Gulf Stream,” a Homer oil painting, and later gave it to Mr. Williams as a gift when “Good Will Hunting” wrapped production. (His personal inscription reads, in part: “From Gus to Robin — turn your boat around!”) “I guess we could have played the scene so that you never saw the painting,” Mr. Van Sant said. “I don’t know why we didn’t. It might have been better.” But, he added, the artwork revealed “a vulnerable place for Robin’s character — it was his Achilles heel.”

Martin Mull, the creator of these two paintings (which are being sold as separate lots), is perhaps better known as the comedian and actor from “Roseanne,” “Arrested Development” and the new Fox sitcom “The Cool Kids.” But, as Mr. Mull tells it, he is an artist who “just by accident, got into show business” after he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design.

“Like every other bozo back in the ’60s, I grew my hair and played guitar and put a band together,” Mr. Mull explained. “Everything was an excuse to buy paint. And to this day, that holds true.” His paintings also appear on the covers of the Joyce Carol Oates novel “My Sister, My Love” and “Love Has Come for You,” an album by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

Mr. Mull, a longtime friend of Mr. Williams, said “At the Black Dog Café” was “somewhat inspired by being on Martha’s Vineyard during the winter time, which is a great time to be there, because there’s no one there.” “Escape Artist,” he said, was a nod to the inverted imagery of Georg Baselitz: “I’m sure that was a direct steal — I won’t even glorify it with the term ‘borrow.’”

Seeing these paintings in the sale, Mr. Mull said, was “one more funereal notice for me — a second strike for me, that Robin is gone.” He said of the paintings, “I hope they’ll go to some other home where they’ll be loved like he loved them.”

Known collectively as the Brothers Hildebrandt, the twin siblings Greg and Tim Hildebrandt were recognized for their vivid depictions of characters from fantasy and science fiction. Though Tim Hildebrandt died in 2006, Greg Hildebrandt has worked as a solo artist since the 1980s, and produced illustrated versions of classic works of literature like “Peter Pan,” featuring this scene of the Darling family dog, Nana, clutching Peter’s shadow in her teeth.

Greg Hildebrandt said he was drawn to “Peter Pan” as an archetypal story of staying “forever young — not losing your innocence and your childhood.” Naturally, Mr. Hildebrandt’s work appealed to Mr. Williams while he was making “Hook,” the 1991 Steven Spielberg blockbuster in which he played a middle-aged Peter Pan who has forgotten about his past adventures in Neverland.

Mr. Williams purchased several of Mr. Hildebrandt’s illustrations, some of which he gave as gifts to Mr. Spielberg and his “Hook” co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Julia Roberts. Though Mr. Hildebrandt met Mr. Williams only once, at a premiere for his 1997 film “Flubber,” he said Mr. Williams lived up to his antic reputation: “He was a child at heart,” Mr. Hildebrandt said. “A lot of people lose track of that. They just become too self-absorbed, I think.”

This saxophone is likely one that Mr. Williams used in preparation for, or during the making of, “Moscow on the Hudson,” the 1984 Paul Mazursky comedy-drama that cast him as a musician in the Moscow circus who defects to the United States during a visit to New York. However, Greg Phillips, who taught Mr. Williams to play the instrument for the film, recalls training him on a tenor sax; Mr. Phillips himself used an alto.

In any case, Mr. Phillips remembered Mr. Williams as an exemplary pupil. “He was a very musical person, even though he hadn’t trained as a musician,” said Mr. Phillips, who also appears briefly in the film as a fellow circus performer.

“He didn’t do what a lot of us did as a kid, which is take lessons or play in a school band,” he said. “He was a first-time student at the age of 31. I was encouraging him to learn to read music, but his memory was so quick that he didn’t feel the need to. He could memorize it faster than he could read it. He could listen to something once and he had it. As long as he concentrated, he was there.”

Mr. Williams won four competitive Golden Globe Awards in his career — for his performances in “Mork and Mindy,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “The Fisher King” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” — and all are up for grabs at the Sotheby’s auction. They’re part of a wider array of Mr. Williams’s prizes in the sale, including two MTV Movie Awards (for “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”), a Clio Award (for the “Toys” movie trailer) and the certificate acknowledging his Academy Award nomination for “Good Will Hunting.” (That Academy Award trophy is not for sale.)

The Golden Globe for “Mork and Mindy” held a special place in his career: it’s one of the first competitive show-business awards he won, just four months after the ABC sitcom made its debut. The ceremony wasn’t shown on television that year, but The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. Williams accepted the prize “by turning to the audience and grabbing himself.”

Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter at The Times. His most recent book is “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams.

Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams
On view Saturday through Oct. 3 at Sotheby’s New York and sothebys.com; the sale is Oct. 4.


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