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The Hunt for the Red Collector

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Three days after the sale, a New York Times article carried the mystery man’s picture under the headline “Recognize This Man? The Art World Doesn’t.” That photograph has been printed out, pinned to bulletin boards, and saved on the hard drives of galleries and auction ­houses worldwide, but months later he has yet to be identified. The sale has become the subject of a global parlor game among art-market players summering from East Hampton to the Côte d’Azur. The game’s general assumptions: first, that no one would spend $100 million in an auction without having at least a billion in the bank, and, second, that no billionaire can go utterly unrecognized. Thus, the parlor-gamers believe the man at the auction was a trusted lieutenant—the bidder, but not the buyer.

The buyer is the real prey, of course. Even in this era of ludicrous wealth creation, new players with seemingly spendthrift attitudes remain rare and highly prized, and this person was not gun-shy. The consensus art-market take on the Dora Maar’s value was $40 million, maybe $50 million—but never $95 million. “I regard it as a good Picasso, but not a great one,” explains Upper East Side dealer Richard Feigen. “The canvas appears to have been relined and varnished. I don’t think it’s mint condition. I would have hesitated to try selling it at $60 million.” Another major dealer in Picassos, Monaco’s David Nahmad, considers the auction price staggering. “The person who bought it is risking perhaps $20 million,” he explains. “Several people would pay $75 million for it right now, but he definitely paid a premium above the value to get that particular painting.” Yet if he overpaid at $95 million, the buyer may have been willing to go even higher. One art-world insider, who claims a dealer friend knows the new owner, says the bidder had instructions to bid up to $125 million for the Dora Maar.

Having lucked into such a client, Sotheby’s keeps his name tightly guarded. The buyer’s identity has been revealed inside the house on a strictly need-to-know basis. When I suggest to Norman that perhaps only five or six Sotheby’s employees—including himself and Meyer—know the name, he points out, “Actually, it’s my sale. Tobias was the auctioneer, but that’s not something he would absolutely have to know.” I ratchet my guess down to three Sotheby’s staffers; Norman does not correct me.

By now a few people outside Sotheby’s have learned the identity of the buyer, but when clues leak out, they don’t travel far. To those in the art world, such information is more valuable kept secret than revealed. “Yes, I think I know who bought the Dora Maar,” one European dealer tells me, claiming he got the information coincidentally, at a posh dinner party. “But telling you would be like putting a bullet in my head, businesswise. I’d have to be suicidal.”

According to many reports, the mystery bidder’s speech “sounded Russian.” Given that smidgen of sketchy data, dealers started brushing up on their oligarchs. Certainly, the notion rang true. So-called New Russians have been pouring wealth into art. At Sotheby’s, auction totals for the Russian Art department rocketed from $7.6 million in 2000 to $106.2 million last year; in 2006, sales have already totaled $111.9 million. The difference between pre- and post-oligarch prices is stunning. An extreme case: Sold in 1989 for $36,000, the Boris Kustodiev painting Odalisque went at Christie’s London last November for $3.2 million.

Though only a few of those Russian collectors have gravitated toward international art, they have already had a major impact there as well. “If you get three to five more bidders on a piece, it completely changes the face of a sale,” says Norman, adding that a fair number of the notably high recent auction prices were achieved with the participation of Russian bidders, even if they did not always win.

And certainly, the Dora Maar bidder’s style evoked the New Russian art-market approach. “The interesting thing about the Russian collectors is how aggressive they are once they’ve decided they really want an artwork,” says Howard, who has several Russian clients. “The ideal situation for an auction house is to have two Russians bidding against each other.” That intra-Russian competitiveness manifested itself as soon as the Dora Maar news spread. One former art dealer based in Berlin says she got several calls from Geneva private bankers in early May, desperately seeking portraits of Dora Maar for their Russian clients.

Why did the Sotheby’s buyer want his Dora Maar so badly? Perhaps connoisseurship. Perhaps to impress his friends. But it could also have been an investment, even at such a high price. “Artists like Picasso and Warhol are big brand names,” notes Howard. “So their paintings are like international currency.” And as Feigen points out, “If you’re just going to get one Picasso, this was a good one. It’s big, colorful, splashy, and very characteristic. It screams Picasso.” Or it could be a safety net. “I have a Russian businessman friend—not a billionaire but very wealthy—who has been putting a third of his assets into art for several years,” says Stanislav Shekshnia, co-author of The New Russian Business Leaders. “Partly because art appreciates, but also because it’s something that can’t be easily taken away.” If that’s the case, the work could be sitting in one of Switzerland’s free ports—massive warehouses where collectors and dealers store work “offshore” in impregnable darkened rooms.


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