Director Billy Wilder Puts His Legendary $22 Million-or-So Art Collection on the Auction Block

updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's magnificent," David Hockney whispered, standing before La Toilette, a seductive nude by the 20th-century French painter Balthus. Nearby, Tony Bennett gazed admiringly at Têtefemme, Picasso's evocative portrait of his pregnant first wife, Olga Koklova. Elsewhere in the Beverly Hills Hotel's Crystal Room. Walter Matthau, Victoria Principal, Peter Falk, Betty White and Henry Mancini ogled Giacomettis and Calders. Renoirs and Dufys. Amid the swirl of celebrities, the host of the evening, director and six-time Oscar winner Billy Wilder, pronounced himself content. "Amazing," Wilder said. "People didn't just run for the cocktails and for friends to talk about their private lives. They actually talked about the paintings"

Hollywood knows a Big Occasion when it sees one. The two-day September exhibition was the last complete showing—there have been select samplings in Tokyo, Zurich. Geneva and Paris—of Billy Wilder's legendary collection of 20th-century art. Still crowding his apartment and warehouses is an assemblage that includes pre-Columbian and African statuary, Charles Eames chairs, bentwood furniture, postage stamps, patent models, busts of Roman emperors and, Wilder readily admits, tchotchkes. On Nov. 13. Wilder will put 94 of his masterpieces, including works by Moore. Miró, Braque, Cornell, Rivers, Thiebaud and Schiele, on the block at Christie's in New York City. "I wanted to test my willpower." the director says of the auction, which is expected to gross $22 million. "I kept reading about those fantastic sales, those incredible prices. So one day I said to my wife, 'Let me call their bluff."

The decision was actually a bit more complex than that, since the maker of such movie masterpieces as Double indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment has spent 50 years amassing his artworks. "A collection needs to grow with the times, or it becomes like an old suit—you love it, but the moths have eaten it," Wilder says. "It needed new stuff. Unfortunately I found things I desperately wanted, but today there is an additional zero at the end of the price. Besides, you know the cliché about being possessed by possessions. We worried that the people in the apartment above ours would let the bathtub overflow. And insurance—I don't have to tell you. I felt I needed a liberation from responsibility." Wilder also didn't want to saddle his wife of 40 years, Audrey, 66 (whom he has called the widow-to-be), with the huge collection after his death.

The Austrian-born Wilder began buying art as a newspaperman and screen-writer in Berlin in the early '30s. "I had friends who were art critics, painters, sculptors," he says. "I found out about new names—Braque, Miró, Dali. My financial status was very, very shaky. At first I bought posters, lithographs, a few woodprints." His collecting was abruptly sidetracked in 1933, when Hitler seized power. "I left Berlin the same day as the Reichstag fire," Wilder recalls. "I sold the Bauhaus furniture I had just bought, for nothing. I gave some of my collection to an Aryan friend in case I should ever come back." When he did return, after World War II, the "friend" claimed to know nothing about the works.

Wilder fled first to Paris, then, in 1934, to Hollywood. "I knew 20 or 30 words of English from American talking pictures," he says. "It was too late for me to learn English without an accent. Now, after 50 years, I have a curious accent, which is a mixture of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Archbishop Tutu." In 1938 he co-wrote Ninotchka, which starred Greta Garbo, and suddenly became a Hollywood name. With money for art again, Wilder started buying Toulouse-Lautrec posters and in 1940 acquired his first Picasso, a drawing, for $900. "There were very few dealers in Los Angeles then," he recalls. "When I was on location in New York or Paris or London, I would always pick up something. Days we weren't working, I would go on a buying spree 14 hours a day. I bought a George Grosz painting for a carton of cigarettes in 1945."

Wilder's eye for art reflects the spare intelligence and wit of his films. "It's a 'felt' collection," says L.A. County Museum curator Maurice Tuchman. "It's indicative of his literary and poetic instincts. Everything has some humor in it." One movie was even inspired by his art. "I bought a painting by Pierre Roy in New York," he remembers. "There was a black derby and a soft hat, and the sun was shining on the parquet floor. I thought of Love in the Afternoon there."

Wilder concedes he will feel sweet sorrow in parting with his masterpieces, some of which originally cost less than $5,000, but he will be there for the auction. "I want to be present at the fight," he says. "Money is of less importance than the inner satisfaction that I was on the right lotto numbers." He will also play artistic father of the bride. "I'd like to give a little advice to the purchasers, if they're not anonymous. 'This Matisse drawing needs to be in the shade' or 'That Braque needs to be watered three times a week.' I had those things for 20, 30, 40 years. Now they'll just have to leave their parents' house and see whether they can stand on their own two feet."

—Susan Reed, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles

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