Top Billionaire Art Collectors
Suffering from one of its worst years in recent memory, the art world got a boost in June when French billionaire François Pinault opened his new modern art museum, the Punta della Dogana, in Venice’s former customs house at the entrance of the Grand Canal. In what some called the “Dogana effect,” the opening was also seen as having helped boost attendance at Art Basel, the respected contemporary art fair in Switzerland later that month. While sales for the toned-down fair are hard to come by, a record crowd of 61,000, including billionaires Mitchell Rales, Eli Broad and Roman Abramovich showed up at the event.
Wealthy patrons and collectors have been the lifeblood of the art world for centuries, from Italy’s Medici family to American industrialists Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. That is still true today even as art valuations drop. Indeed, in a downturn like this one, billionaires are some of the only people who can still afford to buy expensive art or help prop up museums.
Broad, for instance, spent $30 million in December bailing out the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art to prevent the museum from having to sell off artwork and leave its current headquarters. Several months earlier, Estée Lauder Chairman Leonard Lauder gifted $131 million to New York City’s Whitney Museum, of which he is chairman emeritus, in part to help it keep its Upper East Side location. (See “Most Powerful Billionaire Boards.”)
Art is a passion for these billionaires, but it is also a valuable asset. So how did their personal collections hold up in the past year, and who among the rarefied rich owns the most valuable works?
Forbes scoured the art world to find out, spending weeks consulting with collectors, art appraisers, insurers, auction houses and gallery owners around the globe. We decided not to include members of the art trade, like dealer Larry Gagosian, or corporate collections, such as Bill Gates’, which belongs to Microsoft . We decided not to include members of the art trade, like dealer Larry Gagosian, or corporate collections.
Since the art world trades on closely held information, most experts who spoke with us requested anonymity in discussing private art collections. While some disagreed on exact figures, almost all agreed on the top billionaire collectors. The final list includes 14 individuals who hold private collections worth $700 million or more. The estimates are purposefully conservative and should be considered “at least” numbers.
Topping the ranks is Philip Niarchos, son of the late shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and father of Stavros III, who was linked in the past to American heiress Paris Hilton. He is said to have the most valuable collection, worth at least $2 billion. Philip’s father began collecting art in 1949 and over his lifetime acquired many well-known masterpieces including Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear” and Pablo Picasso’s self-portrait “Yo, Picasso.” Since his father left him the collection, Philip has quietly added such contemporary works as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Self-Portrait” and Andy Warhol’s “Shot Red Marilyn.”
During our quest to pin down these extraordinary collections, we discovered a new fortune belonging to Esther Grether, a little-known Swiss cosmetics heiress whose 7.5% stake in Swatch and art collection of more than 600 pieces, including ones by Paul Cezanne, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon, make her not only a billionaire but also the only woman in our list of top art collectors. She keeps the works in a printing factory that she converted, and where she also lives.
Valuing art is an obvious challenge, and even more so today with the art market affected by the same liquidity crisis as any other product or service.
“The confusion [in valuations] has to do with the lower number of sales,” said Dr. Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, a fine art adviser and former head of Old Master Drawings at Christies in New York. “Theoretically, there are fewer points of reference since last fall.” With fewer buyers in the market and a healthy supply of new art, the contemporary art market took a precipitous fall in the last year, with some pieces depreciating in value by up to 90%.
Entertainment mogul David Geffen, for instance, made the list although the value of his collection was a matter of heated debate. Some argued his collection, comprised of seminal works by Jasper Johns, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, could be worth up to $2 billion. One person said the entire collection is worth only $400 million, due to the plunge in contemporary art prices. We pin the value at $1 billion.
Regardless, most agreed that Geffen proved to have impeccable timing in selling some of his collection three years ago. In a period of months in 2006, he apparently sold four paintings for $420 million including Jasper Johns’ “False Start” to Citadel’s Kenneth Griffin for $80 million and de Kooning’s “Police Gazette” and “Woman III” to SAC Capital’s Steve Cohen for $63.5 million and $137 million, respectively.
Cohen also makes the cut with a collection valued at $750 million, even though he likely couldn’t sell his de Koonings for anything close to what he paid for them. Still, he has earned a reputation as a prolific, adventurous collector. He is the buyer, for instance, of British artist Damien Hirst’s piece, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”–a 13-foot tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde. The creature reportedly rotted and was replaced. It also was the inspiration for a book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, by economist Don Thompson, who used it as a symbol of greed in the contemporary art world.
Cohen’s passion for art may even surpass his love of business: SAC Capital bought a stake in Sotheby’s auction house earlier this year, even as the auction house reported losses of $34.5 million for the first quarter of 2009.