It is unquestionably diverse.
A deceptively gentle Winifred Nicholson landscape of St Ives harbour, a small tropical fish preserved in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, lots of colourful postmodern Memphis furniture and – for reasons that may never be fully known – a Tintoretto altarpiece.
The artworks and other items, around 400 in number, were all once owned by the late David Bowie, and will be sold by Sotheby’s in three auctions later this month. Until then there is an unprecedented 10 days of free public display, including an all-night session on Friday.
There will also be weekend talks from people who knew Bowie and are familiar with his tastes and passions, including the playwright Enda Walsh and the novelist William Boyd.
Visitors will see a varied collection, but look closer and there are many common threads, said Beth Greenacre, the curator of Bowie’s art collection from 2000.
She said many of the artists Bowie collected were ones who challenged the past and its established orthodoxies, who were intent on creating a new language. “He allowed us to look at the world in a new way and the artists he collected are absolutely doing that,” she said.
Modern British art is well represented, with works by Peter Lanyon, Ivon Hitchens, Leon Kossoff, David Bomberg and Harold Gilman.
Simon Hucker, Sotheby’s senior specialist in modern and postwar British art, said Bowie was drawn to artists with whom he had a connection – often outsiders trying to break with the past.
Bowie, a child of 1950s London, was also interested in where he was from. “It comes back to him being really interested in who he was, the culture he grew up in, the world of his parents, the world of his childhood” said Hicker. “He was a passionate Brit.”
Kate Chertavian was a young art consultant who worked for Bowie in the 1990s. She recalls seeing the other side of Bowie’s flamboyant stage persona – the “quiet, intellectual, curious, nerd” side.
“He was deeply invested and would spend a long time reading about the pieces in his collection,” she said. “This was a man buried in his books, we met a lot and my memories of him are spectacles, double espresso and a pile of books.
“His first question to you always used to be ‘what are you reading?’ … and then he’d steal the book!”
The exhibition, across eight of the auction house’s galleries, shows Bowie’s love of narrative and stories. This passion may explain the inclusion of a 450-year-old altarpiece by Tintoretto and his studio. It shows an angel warning Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a virtuous virgin queen, of her impending martyrdom.
Hucker said although Bowie was hugely knowledgable about art history, his choices were largely a “gut reaction”.
The exhibition also shines a light on Bowie’s love of the colourful. Around 100 items from postmodern furniture designer Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis studio, from vases to sideboards, will go on sale.
Some of those items have an estimated sale price of as low £300, although Hucker stressed that the values had been made based on the the works in isolation, not accounting for their former owner.
The highest estimate has been given to a 1984 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, Air Power, which Bowie bought in 1995, a year before portraying Andy Warhol in the Julian Schnabel biopic of Basquiat. It is predicted to fetch between £2.5m-£3.5m.
There are three Damien Hirst works, including a tiny fish in formaldehyde, which was a gift from the artist. A spin painting that Hirst made with Bowie – Beautiful, hallo, space-boy painting – is estimated at £250,000-£350,000.
• The Bowie exhibition will be at Sotheby’s 34-35 New Bond Street, London, W1S 2RT from 1-10 November
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