Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Collectors' Curse

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Collectors' Curse

Article excerpt


A mystery buyer just spent $140 million on a Jackson Pollock. Whoever you are, you should be very afraid.

Bad things happen to men who splash out millions on paintings, says Godfrey Barker

The art market is enjoying excess undreamed of since Gatsby, and who knows what excitement is next to come? Will we see $150 million for a painting this year? Will pigs fly? Only one note of caution. The gods do not love those who grow too tall.

To become a member of that exclusive club, the owners of the world's most expensive paintings, is to offend heaven and court disaster. 'It takes hubris to pay $100 million for a picture,' says one Sotheby's leading light to me.

'It's as if you're getting above yourself.

Nemesis seems often to be close behind.'


1 PICASSO Le RIve, 1932 Picasso's erotic dream of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, was one of his most memorable images. Its owner Steve Wynn (left), the casino king of Las Vegas, was showing it to guests last October.

Gesturing at Marie-Therese's unusual face, he put his elbow through her forearm. The hole, recalls Nora Ephron, who was there, was the size of a silver dollar, with two rips. 'Oh shit,' he said. 'Look what I've done.' The rest of us were speechless. 'Thank God it was me,' he added.

His Picasso - $7,000 in 1944; $139 million by 2006 - is now unsaleable, its value probably less than $25 million, according to London dealers.

'Damage is one thing but publicity is worse,' says one. Wynn's sale of the painting to SI Newhouse, the magazine king of New York, was cancelled. The Dream becomes part of a life that saw Wynn spend more on art than anyone from 1994 to 1999 ($450 million), build the world's most expensive hotel, the Bellagio in Las Vegas ($1,700 million), hit the skids, and sell the hotel and much of the art. And now this. Life is not fair.

2 DE KOONING Woman III, 1952/3 UNLUCKY LADY This $137.5 million painting was sold by recording and movie mogul David Geffen to hedge-fund king Steven A Cohen in November 2006. It is the only painting from the Fifties Woman I-VI series - in which the artist mocks Hollywood pinups by giving them grotesque grins and vast breasts - outside a museum. The previous known record for a de Kooning was $20.68 million for Interchange in 1989, until last year the highest recorded price for Contemporary Art. That picture brought no luck to art dealer Shigeki Kameyama of Japan who was unable to pay and relieved of most of his gallery stock by Sotheby's. Neither Geffen nor Cohen has yet suffered a major blow from fate over Woman III, but these are early days.

3 KLIMT Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907


This was sold for $135 million in June 2006 by Maria Altmann (left) of Los Angeles and the descendants of the Bloch-Bauer family of Vienna to Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and founder of the Neue Galerie of German and Austrian Expressionist Art, New York. So far, everyone is fine and well. But for the Bloch-Bauers, the seven Klimt paintings they owned represent a tale of 20th-century misery. The paintings were seized by the Nazis on the Anschluss in 1938 and gifted to the Osterreichische Gallery (the Belvedere) after the war. Sixty-one years late, the Austrian government restored five to the Bloch-Bauer family in 2006, but only after six years' legal argument.

4 VAN GOGH Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890

A VALUELESS VAN GOGH Sold for $82.5 million at Christie's New York in May 1990 (now worth $127.3 million), this mournful portrait of the doctor who tried to cure Van Gogh after his year in the St Remy asylum - 'This man is sicker than I am,' the artist declared - is currently unsaleable at any price.

Its owner is unknown, but the picture is said (by the Met in New York) to be in Switzerland and to belong to the Barilla family of Padua (Guido Barilla, above), who own a number of Van Goghs. …

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