Michael Crichton had a prolific career as the writer of techno-thriller page-turners and movie blockbusters like The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Disclosure, and became a household name after he created TV phenom ER. When pressed with the incessant question “Where do you get your ideas?,” he had a stock answer at the ready: “I call a 1-800 number every morning,” he’d joke.
“He didn’t have to work to be creative,” says his widow, Sherri. “That was a gift that he was given.”
He was, however, fascinated by the power and manifestation of creativity in others, and it was his admiration for the ingenuity of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Claes Oldenburg and, most deeply, Jasper Johns, that led Crichton, friends and family say, to collect art passionately in the decades before his unexpected death, at 66, in November 2008. Though he took great care assembling the collection, he neither flaunted it nor boasted about it. Unlike many a collector, he did not trade on his possessions for status. “He was very, very private, and so many of our friends really never saw the entire collection because we didn’t do a lot of entertaining,” says Sherri, who was his fifth wife. Even über collector Eli Broad, who was a neighbor of Crichton’s in Los Angeles, says he never saw the whole thing. “He wasn’t interested in having people trudge through his home looking at the art, as many collectors are,” Broad explains. Nearly the entire treasure trove—valued at approximately $100 million and about 100 lots in all, including fine examples of Picasso, David Hockney, Agnes Martin, Ed Ruscha and Yayoi Kusama—will be sold at Christie’s in April and May.
Crichton’s mother, Zula, saw to it that her son gained an appreciation of art at an early age. When he was in kindergarten, she would pull him out of school on Long Island and bring him into Manhattan to attend a weekly class at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite school officials’ protestations, Sherri says, Zula continued to do so for years. By the time Crichton was an undergrad at Harvard, he had developed a sensitivity and confidence about aesthetics; he once wrote that “my roommates were obliged to put up with my autocratic insistence that I buy all the posters.” In 1969, the year he graduated from Harvard Medical School and published The Andromeda Strain, he bought his first print, a Jack Youngerman silk screen. So much for posters. Crichton began collecting prints in earnest. Two years later, art critic Barbara Rose, who’d become a friend, took him to Gemini G.E.L., the influential L.A. printmaker where all the leading lights made work. Soon Crichton was stopping by whenever he needed a break from writing. “He hung out a lot here,” recalls Gemini cofounder Sidney B. Felsen. “Michael was very inquisitive. He wanted to know what the process was all about.”