Cohen Announces a Sale

Carol Vogel announces the sale of Steven Cohen’s Self Portrait of Manet at Sotheby’s next month in London. Though the work, estimated at $30-45m, is a major addition to Sotheby’s sale, the announcement is significant for the way it flaunts the hedge fund manager’s ownership.

The seller, the hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen, has owned the work for nearly a decade. “It was one of Steve’s first purchases,” said Sandy Heller, Mr. Cohen’s adviser. “Now it’s time for the painting to live another life.”

Mr. Cohen’s decision to part with the Manet comes at a time when he seems to be investing in major works of far more modern art. Two months ago he bought one of the best examples of Jasper Johns’s “Flag” paintings from Jean-Cristophe Castelli, son of Mr. Johns’s legendary dealer, Leo Castelli, for a reported $110 million. (The elder Mr. Castelli, who died in 1999, loved the 1958 “Flag” so much that he never sold it.)

Cohen has cleverly used his interest in art as a public relations tool. Before so many stories began to circulate about Cohen’s art purchases–the Pollock, the de Kooning, the Johns–for record prices privately, the billionaire was mostly known for his penchant for secrecy. At that time, Cohen’s hedge fund, SAC, had become the focus of suspicions about the way it used information on Wall Street and traded off that information. Cover stories in BusinessWeek and segments on 60 Minutes painted Cohen as a dark figure whose secrecy indicated something to hide.

With Cohen’s increasing prominence as an art collector, including the Sotheby’s exhibition of his works and the constant feed of information to the press about his purchases, the media has a convenient way to fix him with a neutral identity. Stories may cast his art collecting as frivolous but the tone is far better than before he opened up about his collecting.

Now a major exhibition, like the Gagosian show of late works by Monet, doesn’t go buy without a story like Katya Kazakina’s identifying Cohen as the owner of another superlative work. Everyone is happy with the result. The press gets a scoop about Cohen and Cohen’s reputation is further fixed as one of the world’s premier art collectors.

Even the constant attention to Cohen’s purchases works in his favor. Take the recent report that Cohen paid $110 million for Leo Castelli’s beloved Jasper Johns flag painting. Most of the players with a keen need to know the prices say the real price was $80 million. But by allowing the higher figure to be spread around, Cohen captures the upside.

The price is now anchored at a 37.5% premium. (And though Cohen’s provenance isn’t quite Castelli’s–yet–the inclusion in his collection will only add value.) If and when Cohen decides to sell his Johns, the calculations will begin from the higher number, not the price he paid.

When the first hedge fund buyers entered the art market earlier this decade, many in the art world feared their habit of buying and selling stocks would be transferred to the art market. In Cohen, we’re seeing his talents as a trader practiced at more sophisticated level as he uses the press to constantly add value to his art collection.

Manet Self Portrait: New Star on the Block (New York Times)

SAC Cohen’s $20 Million Water Lilies Joins Gagosian Monet Show (Bloomberg)