Thursday 22 March 2018

The Scream's secret

Detail of Edvard Munch's The Scream
Detail of Edvard Munch's The Scream
David Usborne

David Usborne

The anonymous billionaire who paid $120m for Munch's masterpiece has at last been named. So what will he do with his prize?

The gossip in the lobby of Sotheby's on the upper east side of Manhattan was all over the place that evening in early May when Edvard Munch's The Scream went under the gavel for $119.9m, a record for any art work sold at auction. Did the state of Qatar buy it, or Bill Gates maybe? Surely it was a Russian billionaire or perhaps one the nouveau very riche of China. What most people agreed was this: it was unlikely any art museum could have plunked down so mighty a sum.

At the time no-one was saying and it seemed reasonable to assume the identity of the telephone bidder would remain a secret. It is often the way. It's why buyers of trophy art pieces aren't in the habit of actually showing up and waving paddles in the air. And when they bid by phone, they almost always have someone else on the line going through the agony of an escalating price for them.

That, indeed, was the case with this highly unusual lot, alone among four iterations of The Scream in private hands. It had been put up for sale by a Norwegian shipping heir, Petter Olsen, who planned to build a hotel and a museum to cater to Munch enthusiasts. The man on the phone acting for the buyer was Charles Moffett, Sotheby's executive vice president. It's already part of auction lore than when Mr Moffett pushed the price above $100m, the auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, uttered, "Can I say I love you?"

Now we learn that the man with the money and the appetite for the painting – actually a pastel – was neither an oil state nor an exotic foreign oligarch. Rather, at least according to The Wall Street Journal, it was Leon Black, a New York financier who heads up the powerful investment firm, Apollo Global Management. Several people close to him confirmed the purchase, the paper affirmed. Mr Black and two partners formed Apollo in 1990. The company manages $105bn in assets and went public in March last year, an event that gave Mr Black even more spending money than he already had.

Probably the speculation should have turned to the Titans of finance in the first place. It isn't just that they have spare cash or that some are more than casual enthusiasts. Mr Black, should you ever be invited to his Park Avenue home, may show you works he already owns by Turner, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Raphael among others. Also involved here is the growing popularity of art as an investment instrument for the very wealthy and for institutions also, which has put the octane not just in auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's but also into the ever more lively global circuit of art fairs, notably Art Basel, which three times a year draws crowds of gallerists, collectors (and socialite gawkers) to Miami, Basel and Hong Kong.

"It's not just fashionable; it really makes a lot of sense," Bob Rice, managing partner at Tangent Capital Partners LLC, an investment banking firm, said recently. "Art is definitely becoming more of a bona fide asset class than it was even five years ago, when people would have raised an eyebrow about that claim."

Another financier who stands out for his magpie habits in the canvas department is Steven Cohen, the Connecticut-based hedge fund manager. Reported to earn $1bn annually, he too has a Munch in his famously extensive collection. In 2010, he paid $35.4m at Sotheby's for Andy Warhol's iconic Coca Cola portrait. Some wondered if he had been the buyer of The Scream.

That it turns out to be Mr Black is by no means anti-climactic. It will boost confidence in the art market globally and doubtless lead us to other nights of auction room drama and new purchase-price records. He and his wife, Debra, who as a theatre producer has brought plays like Frost/Nixon and August: Osage County to Broadway, are considered among the most serious collectors in the business with a portfolio of works estimated to be worth about $750m. He has bought works jointly with Ron Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire and is a particular fan of Gustav Klimt. The two men jointly paid Sotheby's $22.5m in 2001 for Max Beckmann's 1938 Self Portrait with Hunting Horn.

"I wish museum directors knew as much about art as Leon Black does," Richard Feigen, an Old Masters dealer, who has sold him art in the past, told the Journal.

Speaking of museums, there is something else about Mr Black's resume that yesterday was drawing considerable comment. He was the man who pushed the price of The Scream beyond the reach of even the richest of public institutions, yet he happens also to hold seats on the boards of two of the most prestigious: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York.

Thus begins further speculation about the fate of The Scream – or at least this edition of it – which may be the world's best known piece of artwork, with the obvious exception of da Vinci's Mona Lisa. When Sotheby's said the painting had been purchased by a private buyer, it was assumed that we, the public, were unlikely to get another glimpse of it for a long time. Now a new tantalising possibility arises: might Mr Black be persuaded to loan the work to one of the New York museum's he helps to guide? Or even donate it? His fellow directors on both boards will be keen for him to know: let us hang your Munch and the queues to our museums will curl around the block.

In private hands: Big time collectors

Steven Cohen – SAC Capital

The hedge fund manager has a collection that includes work by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Picasso.

Henry Kravis – KKR

The co-founder of the private equity giant has a collection that includes work by Monet and Renoir.

J. Tomilson Hill – Blackstone

Blackstone's vice chairman has a collection of art including Francis Bacon and Cy Twombly.

Noam Gottesman – Toms Capital

The hedge fund manager owns works by Warhol, Bacon and Lucian Freud.

Ken Griffin – Capital

Among Wall Street's most active collectors. He paid $86m for a Jasper Johns painting in 2006.

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