Go Inside the Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams

Arthur Grace, "Robin on Stage of the Metropolitan Opera House During Publicity Shoot, New York, 1986." $1,000 - $2,000 via Sotheby's (October 2018).

American comedian and actor Robin Williams began his career in stand-up comedy in the 1970s before entering the world of television and film. Though he is often associated with a specific brand of sharp, fast-paced comedy, Williams also took on dramatic roles that remain imprinted on our collective psyche. Some of his most beloved and critically-acclaimed films include Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting.

“Aladdin” Genie production cel, circa 1992. $600 – $900 via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

Many of Williams’ most iconic roles are characters that display a winning combination of playfulness and sincerity. Whether he was portraying an alien in the late-1970s television series Mork & Mindy, the genie in Disney’s animated film Aladdin, or an AI-enhanced robot in the film Bicentennial Man, Williams’ earnestness lent his characters weight and grounded his projects in authenticity.

On October 4th, 2018, works of art owned by beloved entertainer Robin Williams and his wife of over 20 years, Marsha Garces Williams, will be part of a dedicated auction at Sotheby’s in New York. The auction also includes more than 40 watches from Williams’ personal collection, along with furniture, decorative art, toys and ephemera from his illustrious career.

Like the majority of his roles, the art collection Williams amassed with Marsha vacillates between silly, surreal, and sincere. Many of the artists featured in the collection are self-taught or working in atypical media. Behind most of the colorful, playful works lie a deeper meaning, be it a statement the artist is trying to make about society or a personal struggle the artist worked through in his or her creative process.

The breadth and depth present in Williams’ career is reflected in the couple’s aesthetic preferences; their collection includes well-known names and thought-provoking, avant-garde works of art. “Robin’s favorites were as mutable as he was,” said Marsha in an interview with Sotheby’s. “It might be a different answer every day. It might be the Happy Choppers Banksy one day, and the next the anime-like Nara Puff Marshie, or the colorful Niki de Saint-Phalle Le poete et sa muse. Then again, it might be his bike.”

On their collecting philosophy, Marsha said, “We didn’t really think of it as collecting. We chose things that made us laugh, think, or want to be its caretakers for a period of time so that we could see them regularly. We loved the pieces that elicited immediate responses from ourselves, each other, family and friends.”

Below, explore the artists championed by this larger-than-life personality – and how their work, like Williams’, transcends genre and defies definition.

1. Banksy, “Happy Choppers”

Banksy, “Happy Choppers.” $400,000 – $600,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

In a 2007 article in The New Yorker, writer Lauren Collins describes Banksy’s style as “broad social cartooning,” meticulously detailed and cleanly articulated. “Confronted with a blank surface,” said Collins, Banksy “will cover it with scenes of anti-authoritarian whimsy.”

One enduring aspect of Banksy’s practice is his tongue-in-cheek approach to iconography. In Happy Choppers, Banksy juxtaposes images of dark military helicopters with pink bows and blue skies that connote innocence and light. Whether by creating his own visual wordplay or appropriating famous works of art, Banksy’s work maintains a sharp comedic edge while often serving as a critique of contemporary politics.

Happy Choppers was purchased by Marsha for Robin in large part because it references the toys and figurines he thoughtfully collected throughout childhood and as an adult.

2. Niki de Saint-Phalle, “Le poète et sa muse”

Niki de Saint-Phalle, “Le poète et sa muse.” $350,000 – $450,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

Niki de Saint-Phalle is an Outsider artist known for exuberant, colorful figures and large-scale installation projects. Her work was experimental in terms of medium, form, and subject matter. She started creating art as a type of therapy but eventually began working as an artist full time. In Le poète et sa muse (the poet and his muse), as in her other works, the artist articulated defiant ideas about gender norms and the role of women in society.

Niki de Saint-Phalle, Letter to Robin Williams. Together offered with “Phsycodelic Brain” (not pictured). $3,000 – $5,000 via Sotheby’s (Octpber 2018).

Williams’ wife Marsha notes that this sculpture was one of Williams’ favorite works in their collection. The artist similarly felt a kinship with the actor, as evidenced by the fact that she once wrote and whimsically decorated a letter to Williams and left it in his mailbox while she was staying near their home.

3. Yoshitomo Nara, “Puff Marshie (Hirosaki Version / Shanghai Version)”

Yoshitomo Nara, “Puff Marshie (Hirosaki Version / Shanghai Version).” $300,000 – $400,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

Yoshitomo Nara is a Japanese artist connected to Superflat, a movement that serves as a reproof of post-World War II consumerism and western influence in Japan. Nara’s signature style incorporates bold, sometimes sinister images of wide-eyed children.

According to Kristin Chambers, who curated an exhibition of Nara’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland in 2003, “His characters are devilish, fairy-tale strange, and not afraid to embrace the anxiety and intensity that define existence at any age. Nara challenges the world of grown-ups, full of unyielding expectations and entrenched codes of behavior.” This childlike perspective is present elsewhere in Creating a Stage, an auction which features not only contemporary art and film memorabilia but also vintage and modern toys kept in pristine condition by Williams.

Nara’s anime-like aesthetic also drew Williams and his wife to the piece. “We watched a lot of Japanese animations as a family. Those are the sorts of things we always did together with the kids,” said Marsha.

4. Yoram Wolberger, “Blue Cowboy No. 1 (Gunslinger)”

Yoram Wolberger, “Blue Cowboy No. 1 (Gunslinger).” $25,000 – $35,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

Yoram Wolberger’s Blue Cowboy No. 1 (Gunslinger) was given to Williams by his wife in 2007. She said, “I adore the cowboy because it was the kind of toy Robin played with growing up. There were these little plastic badly-molded toys that you could get a bag of cowboys, or army men, or whatever. This was the large sculptural version of that. I loved that for him.”

Though visually playful, these larger-than-life versions of childhood toys and domestic objects represent potentially damaging paradigms of Western culture. The scale of the artist’s work forces the viewer to reconsider the role of everyday objects in reinforcing stereotypes and other socially-constructed dichotomies.

5. JR, “28 Millimètres: Face 2 Face, Nuns in Action, Separation Wall. Security Fence, Palestinian Side, Bethlehem”

This joyful photograph documents the creation of artist JR’s “Face 2 Face” project, during which the artist pasted monumental portraits of Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the West Bank barrier to highlight the similarities between the two communities. The artist wrote on Instagram, “the nuns recognized the priest, and came to paste with us.” The project has heavy roots, but in this photograph JR captured a moment of celebration and levity.

6. Dale Chihuly, Illuminated “Ikebana”

Left: Dale Chihuly, Illuminated “Ikebana” from Rubicon, San Francisco. $7,000 – $9,000. Right: Dale Chihuly, Illuminated “Ikebana” from Rubicon, San Francisco. $7,000 – $9,000. Both via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

Innovative glass artist Dale Chihuly is known for his experimentations with medium, color, and form. On his work Chihuly stated, “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in some way that they’ve never experienced.”

Robin Williams met Chihuly in the 1995 when they spoke together on a panel at the American Academy of Achievement Awards in Washington, D.C. Later, Williams and his wife Marsha acquired several works that showcase Chihuly’s bright, fun style. These “Ikebana” sculptures were commissioned as a set of four from Chihuly by the couple for their San Francisco restaurant, Rubicon.

7. Mr. Brainwash, “Andy Tomato Spray”

Mr. Brainwash, “Andy Tomato Spray.” $5,000 – $7,000 via Sotheby’s (October 2018).

Mr. Brainwash, or MBW for short, blends Pop art references and the contemporary cultural lexicon to create playful pieces like Andy Tomato Spray. The work features Warhol’s portrait alongside a subverted version of his Campbell’s soup motif in the form of spray paint cans.

Fans of street art know Mr. Brainwash as the subject of Banksy’s 2010 documentary film entitled Exit Through the Gift Shop. The artist, whose name is Thierry Guetta, is known to appropriate the styles and motifs of his peers as well as his predecessors.


Sources: Sotheby’s | The New Yorker | Chihuly.com | Kristin Chambers in Exh. Cat., Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, 2003, p. 27 | Pace Gallery | Sotheby’s | Widewalls | Hyperallergic | Mark Moore Fine Art | JR-Art.net | Sotheby’s