How Leo Got His Name
Leonardo DiCaprio has become something of an auction fixture lately, attending major sales dressed in jeans and a baseball cap. Now, the star of "The Great Gatsby" has asked Christie's to help him pull off an auction of his own—to raise money for the environment.
On May 13, the actor, along with Christie's specialist Loic Gouzer, will try to auction off 33 artworks. Mr. DiCaprio has asked collectors and artists to donate the pieces for the sale to raise around $15 million for his foundation, which supports environmental causes.
Because the actor helped cull the pieces in Christie's "The 11th Hour" sale, the resulting group offers clues about the kind of art he likes best. (The auction's name takes its title from a documentary Mr. DiCaprio co-produced.) The sale will include Mark Grotjahn's rainbow-hued abstract from 2012, "Untitled (Standard Lotus No. 11, Bird of Paradise, Tiger Mouth Face 44.01)." It's priced to sell for at least $1.5 million. Andreas Gursky's 2010 satellite image of Earth, "Ocean V," comes directly from the actor's private collection. Its estimate: at least $500,000.
This week, Mr. DiCaprio faced an art-world distraction from the sale: Authorities arrested a gallery-owning friend of his, Helly Nahmad, for allegedly helping Russian mobsters finance a gambling scam. (Mr. Nahmad's lawyer, Richard Golub, declined to comment.)
The actor has declined to comment on the matter, but he had plenty to say this week about the auction, his eclectic collection and why he's named after an Old Master painter. Below, an edited transcript.
WSJ: Can you tell us about your first name?
My dad says he and my mom were visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, and stopped to look at a Leonardo da Vinci painting. My mom was pregnant with me, and I started kicking furiously, so my dad said, "That is an omen." I actually went to the Uffizi a while ago, but I could never figure out which painting they saw.
Your father published avant-garde comic books. What influence did he have on you?
I really grew up in the underground art world. My father was friends with L.A.'s illustrative artist group, with guys like Robert Williams and Robert Crumb. In the 1970s and 1980s, I'd go with my dad to bookstores, so I was always meeting artists.
Did you collect anything as a kid?
I collected baseball cards. I still have boxes of them, but they aren't worth a dime.
I hear you are also interested in fossils.
As a kid, I was constantly at the natural-history museum, so when I grew up I wanted to fulfill my childhood fantasies and have some pieces in my house. I have a few predatory dinosaurs, and I also collect vintage movie posters from the golden era of Hollywood. To me, that's a really undervalued marketplace. Some of these lithograph prints of film posters were essentially put up on the walls as advertisements, but a lot of them are one-of-a-kind pieces.
You stepped up your collecting after your 1996 hit, "Romeo + Juliet." How did you learn to navigate the art scene?
After being exposed to the world, I started getting more involved in the SoHo gallery scene in New York and getting my beak wet in collecting. At first I was naive about who to collect, who I actually liked, because as soon as someone offers you something, you say, "Oh, my God, I want it! I want it!" At first you don't really understand who these people are in art history, so it's been a real learning process. One of my first purchases was a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing.
At one point I slowed down in my collecting because I felt like I was a little misdirected, but lately I've been collecting more. I'm really excited about a lot of these artists like Urs Fischer in the scene now.
How does the art world compare to Hollywood?
A lot of great artists don't get enough recognition, but the ones who get the right exposure and manage their career in the proper way do rise to the top eventually. Sometimes it takes a long time and other times it's an immediate explosion onto the art scene—much like moviemaking, it's interesting to see who stands the test of time and who winds up being a flash in the pan.
What's your approach to collecting?
Much like the movies that I choose, I never really second-guess the art I like and don't like. When I read a script and I feel compelled to be part of making it into a movie, I never question the genre or the subject. I just go for it.
Who stood out early on for you?
Robert Williams introduced me to a lot of L.A. artists like Ed Ruscha, Todd Schorr and Mark Ryden —that's where it started for me. In New York, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel were the guys who were big in the 1980s when I began to understand art better. They were my heroes, and I've continued to be a huge admirer of Basquiat. Now you see his work in museums everywhere.
What's your favorite museum?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is probably the greatest museum in the world. I usually go to the Impressionist section first.
Have you ever met any artists who seem tuned in to the conservation causes you care about?
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by species that have been brought to extinction by man. Then a couple years ago I saw this exhibit of Walton Ford's work in Berlin, and he had a watercolor of this extinct elephant bird called the moa and another one of a Tasmanian tiger. He knows the importance of preserving these species, and he doesn't make them seem savage. Now we get together sometimes, but as much as we would like to talk about art, we mostly just geek out. It becomes an Audubon conversation pretty quickly.
What's the auction experience like for you?
The frenetic energy of an auction is exhilarating, but I actually get freaked out about putting my hand up for anything because things happen so fast. It's fascinating to see an artist come out of nowhere and suddenly get so much bidding around them. Basquiat is one of them. He's been talked about for years as this modern-day Picasso, but suddenly like Francis Bacon or Gerhard Richter, his prices have just shot up. So it's cool to see people having this shared epiphany that this guy belongs in the upper echelon of artists. I've never bid much on anything myself, but it's fun to see the world pick the next "chosen one."
I hear you sat for the Elizabeth Peyton portrait that's in the coming auction. What was that like?
I had to be incredibly still for a long time—like two hours—which I'm not used to, but it was amazing to see her flip that switch as an artist.
By Kelly Crow