Robin Williams by pool with family
Contemporary Art

Life with Robin Williams: Marsha Garces Williams on Two Decades of Collecting Together

As a performer, Robin Williams could play the full scale, from Disney to Shakespeare. He embodied doctors, robots, genies and shopkeepers. But he was, perhaps, at his best when playing an entertainer: Mrs. Doubtfire sending children into fits of giggles; an Army DJ waking the troops with Louis Armstrong; or a teacher rousing his students with the poetry of Walt Whitman. In these roles he truly gave of himself.

It is that playfulness and dedication that surfaces from the myriad pieces of art and objects that he gathered with his wife of 20 years, Marsha Garces Williams. Assembled over some two decades, this collection includes film, entertainment and sports memorabilia; Contemporary and Outsider art; watches and bicycles; along with furniture and decorative works from the couple’s homes. Throughout these disparate parts, a freewheeling irreverence is on the loose.

Robin Williams with a bike
Robin with one of his beloved light weight bikes outside of his garage (there were twenty more inside), San Francisco, 1995 © Arthur Grace

It is an uncommon collection that includes important sculptures by Deborah Butterfield and Magdalena Abakanowicz and pictures by Max Ernst and Lyonel Feininger, alongside a Thoreau first edition, chess sets, action figures, a fly fishing rod and a silver Tiffany & Co yo-yo. Not to mention Harry Potter’s robe.

The humanity and generosity of spirit intimated by these objects extends to Marsha and the Williams children’s decision to donate a portion of the proceeds from the auction of the collection to benefit organizations championed by the couple. These include Human Rights Watch, Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Challenged Athletes Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and Wounded Warrior Project. It will also help to permanently establish the Robin Williams Scholarship Fund at the Julliard School.

The items in this sale reflect the character of a much-loved, unfettered talent, and a fun-filled family life. “Robin’s favorites were as mutable as he was,” observes Marsha, looking over these possessions. “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 Poet et sa Muse. Then again, it might be his bike.”

A Niki de Saint-Phalle sculpture
Lot 5, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Le poète et sa muse

Recently, Marsha Garces Williams shared with us some of the stories behind the wonderfully diverse group of art and objects coming to auction this October. Read below to discover more.

SOTHEBY’S: Did you and Robin consciously set out to build a collection?

MGW: 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. Much of the art in the auction were things we gifted to each other, as different pieces would remind us of the other.

SOTHEBY’S: Was it a collaborative effort or did you have different approaches to finding works?

MGW: As we created a life together we had a house that needed things on the walls, and I was always happy to find those things. One of the things Robin did was he shopped, he was a shopper. He tended to have a guy everywhere. I think every guy in every bike store across the Bay Area thought of himself a "Robin’s guy."

And there were watch store guys. He was always the creature of habit, so he would wear a specific watch all the time for a while. And then he would fall in love with another one.

SOTHEBY’S: How did Contemporary art and Outsider art get drawn into this gathering of family possessions?

MGW: A lot of our earliest pieces were by Outsider and untrained artists, like Howard Finster, Jon Serl, Scottie Wilson and Adolf Wölfli. We really liked to be around their works. With the large Wölfli, I was out in New York trying to buy a little piece of art for Robin for his birthday. I went into the Phyllis Kind Gallery and saw this incredible piece, sort of thumb-tacked onto a board. I thought it was maybe a kind of rug-maquette, because it has a mandala order to it that looks like a carpet. Once I saw that on the wall, I just couldn’t see anything else.

SOTHEBY’S: You bought major pieces by Yoshitomo Nara, Magda Abakanowicz, Shepard Fairey and Banksy. What drew you both to these avant-garde works?

A Magdalena Abakanowicz sculpture
Lot 27, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Caminando (20 Walking Figures)

MGW: The Nara is very anime, and we watched a lot of Japanese animations as a family. Those are the sorts of things we always did together with the kids. And Magdalena Abakanowicz was one of my artist heroes when I was young. Later when she visited our ranch to see her piece and saw the installation I’d done myself she just said, “I love it, it’s great.”

My Banksys were all prior to street art becoming a big deal. And the same with Fairey, it was before his Obama “Hope” poster. When they were young teenagers, I started to purchase gifts of art for my kids that I thought would be relevant for them, and that they might respond to, because I knew they weren’t responding to my Modern masters stuff.

SOTHEBY’S: You even commissioned large-scale horse sculptures, dedicated to your children, by Deborah Butterfield. How did that come about?

A Deborah Butterfield horse sculpture commissioned for the Williams family
Lot 28, Deborah Butterfield, Madrone (Cody )

MGW: We were rebuilding a property up in Napa, and I wanted to put some big sculpture in the yard. So I contacted one of Deborah Butterfield’s gallerists. I talked to Deborah, took her up to the ranch and said: “This is where they’re going to live, and this is what I’d like to do.” And she later came back with her truck, and she picked downed wood from all over the ranch, and took it back to her place in Montana and started building the three horses.

SOTHEBY’S: Did you have the same instinctive approach to decorative works, such as the Chihuly glass and Judy McKie furniture?

A Judy McKie monkey chair
Lot 66, Judy Kensley McKie, Monkey” Armchair

MGW: I didn’t want to have a decorator come in and put a house together for me. I wanted to combine new, old, antique and hand-made pieces. I like artisans. We went to an American Academy of Achievement event, and Robin was on stage with Dale Chihuly. And Chihuly had a couple of his Macchias on stage. Robin went into this whole routine talking about them. I can’t remember what all he compared them to. Probably something x-rated and not fit to print! And so Dale brought those to us in California.

The McKie furniture combined the playful with the animal themes. Like the monkey chair. And Robin loved all things primate. His mother always bought him monkeys.

A Yoram Wolberger sculpture
Lot 1, Yoram Wolberger, Red Indian No. 2 (Bowman)

SOTHEBY’S: Are there any personal gifts between the two of you that are particularly special?

MGW: I came home one day, I think it was my birthday, and there was a Mondrian flower propped up on my pillow – on my side of the bed. Sometimes he’d go out and he’d see something, and he’d know. And I love the Yoram Wolberger Cowboy that I gave him, because it was the kind of toy Robin grew up playing with. Those little badly-molded plastic toys that you could get a bag of cowboys or soldiers. This was a large sculptural version of that. We liked it so much I told him to get the second one the following year.

SOTHEBY’S: Which brings us to Robin’s incredible fascination with toys. How did that develop?

Robin Williams playing video games
Robin Williams playing video games at home, 1993, ©Arthur Grace

MGW: He started as a child. It was something that he grew up doing, having toys, playing with them. When he had a home where he had space to put things, he started purchasing more and more.

When Zak was little, Robin used to create a terrain on the floor with blankets and had all the toys, and they set up little battalions of white dwarfs and Space Marines.

But they were things that Robin always collected and then he started finding special ones that were hand painted. But you know it got to a point where he would sort of sneak them in. He had thousands of them.

SOTHEBY’S: You and the kids very generously decided that a portion of the auction’s proceeds will benefit several charities that are important to your family – could you tell us about a couple?

MGW: The Reeve Foundation goes without saying. Robin and Christopher were longtime friends since being college buddies at Juilliard. Robin and I always went to that event together, and I still go every year. They are part of our family, and we’ll always support that group.

Challenged Athletes is the earliest cause we supported as a family. Robin would do the event, and I would take the kids there. It was a way for me to help them realize how fortunate they are and were. All the kids are still involved with the organization. There is an endowment in Robin’s name, and we help them do events and raise money.

SOTHEBY’S: Is it difficult to part with so many treasures that are filled with memories? What would Robin think about the auction?

MGW: It’s mixed for me—but they all deserve to be loved and appreciated by the next group of guardians. Robin would love it if a lot of money is raised for the causes he was most motivated to be a part of.

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
- Marsha Garces Williams

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