The Hunt for the Red Collector

Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat.Photo: Geoff Caddick/EPA/Corbis

On the evening of May 3, a rough-hewn man in a dark sport coat walked into the Sotheby’s auction room on York Avenue. He picked up a bidding paddle at the registration desk and was seated by the staff near the back of the room, in the faraway seats treated as Siberia in the art world’s hierarchy. In the gala atmosphere that now pervades the major evening auctions, the man seemed an odd figure. “He looked more like a KGB agent than a collector,” recalls art dealer Laszlo von Vertes, who sat ­directly behind him. “His nose looked broken, like a boxer’s. He had dyed hair and cheap shoes, like a bodyguard. If he walked into my gallery, I wouldn’t have sold him a painting.”

The crowd seemed buoyant that evening, reflecting the hot art market and the major paintings on offer. But things started slowly. Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer launched the sale with a Vuillard still life, which failed to break its low estimate. The next, a floral Monet, did better. Then the rough-hewn man started making vigorous use of his paddle. First he won a Monet landscape for $5 million, a cool $2 million above the high estimate. But that was merely prelude.

The star work that evening was Pablo Picasso’s 1941 Dora Maar au Chat, one of the largest portraits he painted of his Parisian lover, Dora Maar. Its high estimate stood at $50 million, but the bidding quickly soared to $60 million, then $65 million—and the man at the back of the room was coming on strong. Typically, bidders are subtle with their signals to the auctioneer: an eyebrow twitch, a nod, a removal of the glasses. But for the Dora Maar, says Von Vertes, the unknown man was “waving his paddle so hard he was fanning my face.” Such intimidation tactics are not unheard of, but deploying them at these prices was extraordinary. “Usually, whenever the bidding goes above $5 million, it becomes more temperate in its rhythm,” says Meyer. “But he always came right back with the next bid.”

With the price rising so fast, some potential buyers wavered. “I know someone who planned to go to $60 million, and he never even got his hand in the air,” says London dealer Rory Howard. Still, there were five bidders fighting for the Dora Maar at $65 million. Casino king Steve Wynn, Ohio retail tycoon Leslie Wexner, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—all experienced collectors—are said to have been among them. But only the man in the dark coat was visible on the auction floor; the others were bidding by telephone via a Sotheby’s staffer, following the action from afar or ensconced in private loges up above. “You used to see people bidding in the sales room at those levels, but not anymore,” explains Geneva private dealer Marc Blondeau, formerly head of Sotheby’s Paris. “The buyer was obviously not familiar with how the market works.”

The man’s presence made for high drama. “It was like a Wimbledon final with two players sweating it out,” recalls Paris-based collector Staffan Ahrenberg. “People looked to the bank of phones for the next bid, then to the back of the room. Left, right, left, right—and each time it meant a million dollars more.” Art-world etiquette forbids standing up for a better view, so the A-listers at the front were stuck craning their necks for a look at the man seated in Siberia. “In my whole history of auctions,” says Daniella Luxembourg, a former Sotheby’s executive who now runs her own London dealership, “I can never recall anything like that.”

One last phone bidder—widely rumored to be Wexner—fought to the end, but ultimately he too conceded to the mystery man’s unrelenting pace. The Dora Maar went for $85 million (plus another $10 million in commission), making it the second-most expensive painting ever auctioned.

When the hammer finally came down, the crowd applauded and Meyer asked the bidder for his paddle number—another sure sign, say auction veterans, that the man was an unexpected player. Simultaneously, David Norman, director of the Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern department, which organized the sale, dispatched staffers to surround the bidder. Observers sniped that the auction house wanted to ensure that the winner did not flee without securing his purchases. After all, he had accounted for nearly half the evening’s receipts—the Dora Maar, plus the $5 million Monet and a $2.5 million Chagall. But Norman says that it was for the man’s own protection: “When someone bids at that level from the salesroom floor, I’ve watched certain private dealers start to slowly swarm around him, business card in hand, like sharks circling a swimmer.” The paddle his staff retrieved, number 1340, now hangs above Norman’s desk.

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.

With dealers convinced a new buyer was hunting Picassos, a ripple effect washed over the market. At June’s Art Basel fair in Switzerland, the Spanish painter’s work was prominently displayed and boldly priced. But almost all of it went unsold. “These kinds of price jumps complicate things,” explains Nahmad. “I had a Dora Maar that I was trying to buy, and the seller said his was better than the one at Sotheby’s, so he wanted $150 million for it.”

But the May auction’s ramifications go beyond just the Russian-collector sphere or the Picasso market. “That Dora Maar sale was not a turning point because of who was bidding,” says Meyer, “but because it makes us realize a new person can come in at any time, unexpectedly bidding at billionaire levels.”

Even before its tumultuous sale, the Dora Maar painting was a bit of an auction-world freak case. “Usually, we’ve been closely tracking any work at this level for a long time, but we never knew this Picasso existed,” explains Norman. “Christie’s had known about the picture for years, but they were keeping us at bay, helping the family with things like valuations for insurance.” Yet earlier this year, one family member called in Sotheby’s to appraise the work’s auction potential. Although Norman won’t confirm it, “the family” was Chicago’s Gidwitz clan, heirs to the Helene Curtis cosmetics fortune.

Sotheby’s expert Charles Moffett went to the home of Adele Gidwitz to see the painting in person and immediately uploaded a digital photo to the auction house’s New York headquarters. In what Norman describes as “a ‘Holy shit!’ moment,” ­Sotheby’s staffers went scurrying to their research library. It took them three days to track down an image. The painting did not figure in any Picasso catalogue raisonné, and it had not been reproduced since 1968, when it appeared in the Art Institute of Chicago’s little-remembered “Picasso in Chicago” exhibition. Norman hopped on a plane the next week, saw the painting himself, and started pushing to secure the piece. The bait: a “guarantee” rumored to be nearly $60 million, ensuring the Gidwitzes that sum even if the painting went unsold. “Maybe Christie’s thought it was worth less than 50,” suggests Norman. “Or maybe they thought they had it sewn up, and they were lowballing the guarantee.” In any case, the family went with Sotheby’s.

With so much on the line, Sotheby’s needed a clear sense of who would pursue the picture. The presale goal of an auction house is to take uncertainty out of the equation by stoking collectors’ desires to a pitch that can turn feverish during the auction. Sotheby’s promoted its Dora Maar aggressively: through magazine ads in Russia, China, America, and Europe, and in its windows at 1334 York Avenue. It also toured the prized Picasso to showrooms in Hong Kong, Paris, and London. (Clearly, the campaign worked: At least four other Dora Maars were floating around for private sale, and their prices suddenly spiked.)

Usually, an auction house can accurately predict which collectors and dealers will drive the sale of big-ticket works, in part because the pool is so small. “We had a list of ten potential bidders for Garçon à la Pipe, and six of them were in it toward the end,” Norman says, referring to last year’s record-setting auction. “With the Dora Maar, of the five people who were still in at $65 million, three were people we had anticipated and the fourth was someone we thought was a ‘maybe.’ ”

“Yes, I think I know who bought the Dora Maar, ”one European dealer admits. “But telling you would be like putting a bullet in my head, businesswise. I’d have to be suicidal.”

Norman conspicuously doesn’t mention the fifth bidder, presumably the winner’s lieutenant. Although Sotheby’s won’t confirm it, art-world insiders assume that the Dora Maar’s winning bidder essentially ambushed the house. Which is not to say that he had not been vetted, because to bid from the floor you need a paddle. And to get a paddle, you need to confirm the ultimate buyer’s identity and financial standing. But once you have a paddle in hand, you can bid on any damn thing in the sale, from the comparatively pedestrian Camille Pissarro landscape sold that night at a mere $318,400 to the Dora Maar at nearly 300 times that figure.

Almost as soon as the hammer came down, the race to find the buyer was afoot. Moscow artist and gallery owner Aidan Salakhova, who has long served as a liaison between the Russian and Western art scenes and who counts several oligarchs among her clients, awoke to a flurry of e-mails and text messages asking for help. Her friend Nic Iljine—a Guggenheim Museum point man in Europe, instrumental both in bringing nickel king Vladimir Potanin onto the museum’s board and organizing its “Russia!” show—had a similar experience: “Within an hour of the Dora Maar sale, I got an e-mail from the Times with that picture of the guy. But I sent it around to my contacts and no one knew him.”

To this day, despite their massive networks, neither Iljine nor Salakhova claims to know the buyer’s identity. The international press and art-world rumor mill, meanwhile, has trotted out the usual suspects: London-based oil baron Roman Abramovich, despite the fact that his purchases have been more lowbrow, most notably the Chelsea Football Club in England’s Premier League; and vodka mogul Roustam Tariko, who denied it to The New Yorker, saying, “I’d rather invest in my freedom, rather than in my walls.” In any case, Tariko’s flashy history suggests he would hardly have hidden the purchase. Same problem with oil tycoon Viktor Vekselberg, who in 2004 preempted the Sotheby’s sale of nine Fabergé eggs from the Forbes collection, offering a reported $110 million. The Art Newspaper suggested it was the more low-profile Alexander Abramov, a Vekselberg business associate; he denied it.

“I think it’s a totally new collector,” says Salakhova, noting that she has ruled out Potanin and Vekselberg, along with Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven of the powerful Alfa Group Consortium. It would seem extraordinary for a buyer to start collecting at the highest end of the market, but it’s not unprecedented. That’s precisely how Greenwich hedge-fund king Steven Cohen debuted as a collector—buying up major works by Van Gogh, Bacon, and Warhol.

Photo: Peter Foley/EPA/Corbis

Iljine suggests that, given the bidder’s unsophisticated approach, the buyer cannot be among the better-known Russian tycoons. “I know several oligarchs personally, and they’re not primitive people,” he explains. “It could always be a guy from Azerbaijan. They’re oil-rich down there, too. Or someone in Siberia. They’re not so intellectual, and they have hundreds of millions offshore.” Moscow’s fitness-club mogul Olga Sloutsker, herself a contemporary-art collector for more than a decade, also believes the answer may lie somewhere in the oil-rich provinces. “Maybe it’s like Texas—not-so-cultured people with a lot of money. But it’s a very Russian way: He has the money. He wants the Picasso. He doesn’t care about what the press or the rest of the art world will think. People say mean things about him, because the art world is such a jealous place. Collectors don’t like to be beaten—especially men, especially by someone ‘undeserving.’ ”

Chasing the mystery buyer, I speak with more than two dozen people on four different continents, collecting clues, speculation, and gossip. Several highly placed sources suggest the buyer is a client of the powerhouse Paris-based Wildenstein clan. Despite his denial, that suggests Abramov, a horse-racing aficionado who has popped up with the stable-owning Alec Wildenstein at equestrian events around the globe. Art-world gossip also indicates that the buyer has a London connection, which leads me to the ruthless aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, who bought a massive landmarked house in tony Belgravia and has reportedly been taking English lessons at the London School of Economics. Then again, virtually all New Russians own London residences or spend significant time in the city.

In an attempt to crack the puzzle through deduction and data mining, I construct a spreadsheet, including all 33 Russians named in the 2006 Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. Eliminating the usual suspects and those who have denied buying the Dora Maar brings my pool down to 26.

Then I get lucky. A friend puts me in touch with a very successful Moscow businessman, who claims to know the buyer but won’t reveal his identity. “He’s worried about bad publicity, because right now it would cause too much jealousy in Russia,” the contact says, explaining that time abroad has also taught the buyer about the negative perception of New Russians’ garishly flashing their wealth. When I tell him about the Moscow art crowd’s supposition that it’s some provincial oilman, he laughs: “It’s not an oilman. It’s a banker, from Moscow.” But he refuses to say anything more.

Still, this clue narrows my circle of candidates greatly. Of the 26 billionaires on my list, there are only six I’d consider Moscow bankers. The best known is Alexander Lebedev, president of National Reserve Bank, whose fortune Forbes estimates at $3.5 billion, and whose London connection goes back to his KGB-agent days. Then there’s Nikolai Tsvetkov, president of the investment bank UralSib, whose estimated wealth has skyrocketed in recent years to $5.2 billion. A former Air Force officer, he seems the type to have sent a lieutenant. Next come Alexei Kuzmichov and German Khan, both of whom are involved in Alfa Group alongside Fridman and Aven, although they are far less public figures. Finally, there’s Sergei Popov and Andrei Melnichenko of MDM-Bank, the youngest and “poorest” of this bunch, with fortunes that Forbes estimated at $2.7 billion each. Through an MDM spokeswoman, both deny buying the Dora Maar.

Just as I’m puzzling through which banker seems most likely, new information blindsides me: A reliable source, with impeccable art-market contacts, calls to say, “The buyer is absolutely not a Russian.”

“The Dora Maar sale was a turning point,” says Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, “because it makes us realize a new person can come in at any time, unexpectedly bidding at billionaire levels.”

What? Has the art world’s search been focused on the wrong country? What about the Moscow businessman’s assertion that the buyer is a Moscow banker? My reliable source will not elaborate.

Trying to square this new information with my other clues, I go back to my spreadsheet. That’s when it hits me: What if the buyer is both “a Moscow banker” and “not a Russian”? Strictly speaking, “not Russian” means someone not from the Russian Federation, which wouldn’t rule out Georgians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, or Kazakhs. This filter narrows my pool to only a few names: the Ukraine-born Khan—and two I had not seriously considered before, Azerbaijani oilman Vagit Alekperov and Georgian mining magnate Boris Ivanishvili. Alekperov—ranked by Forbes as the richest man living in Moscow with a net worth of $11 billion—is the least probable. Although he owns Imperial Bank, his prime asset is Russia’s largest private oil company, Lukoil. That hardly squares with my source’s comment that “it’s not an oilman.”

More likely is Khan. He has a lot of oil interests, but Alfa Group’s financial activities are highly diversified. And with an estimated $6.1 billion fortune, he can certainly afford the Dora Maar. Plus, he has strong London contacts and art-aficionado friends. Perhaps he caught the collecting bug from Aven or Vekselberg. But wouldn’t they have instructed him in auction-buying protocol? His art-world connections would seem to rule him out.

In the end, all my detective work leads to one man: Ivanishvili. No one better fits the clues. He took over Moscow’s behemoth Impexbank in 1999. He has no known previous art-market dealings. He splits his time between a rural village in Georgia, justifying the “not Russian” description, and Paris, capital of the Wildenstein art-market empire. Plus, just one week before the Dora Maar auction, he sold Impex to Austria’s Raffeisen Bank for a reported $550 million, so the Picasso might have been a trophy. Or an investment. Quod erat demonstrandum: Boris Ivanishvili bought the Dora Maar au Chat.

Or not. This whole process of deductions is riddled with potentially faulty assumptions. Given the recent price jumps for oil and Moscow property, the billionaire lists are doubtless outdated. And it’s possible the buyer is not even a billionaire; as Stanislav Shekshnia points out, a defining trait of the New Russians is their seemingly irrational behavior. Plus, the term “banker” could be loosely applied to virtually every Russian billionaire, since nearly all have a bank among their holdings. And of course it’s possible that the buyer comes from outside the former USSR. Sure, the whole art world charged off after Russians based on reports that the bidder “sounded Russian,” but Laszlo von Vertes, the dealer who sat behind him and whose family comes from Hungary, says his accent could just as easily have been Bulgarian or Romanian. And there’s no guarantee the lieutenant and his master hold similar passports.

Ivanishvili is an educated guess, nothing more. And the mystery of the Dora Maar au Chat may well endure for years. Such cases are common in the art world, where opacity and discretion reign supreme. As Norman points out, “It’s been more than a year, and no one has even guessed right about the Garçon à la Pipe buyer.” Likewise, no one knows where Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, sold by Christie’s in 1990 for a then-record $82.5 million, has been for the past decade. But the art-world guessing games continue. Everyone loves a good mystery—especially one worth millions of dollars to whoever cracks the code.

A game of deduction and educated guesswork.

A Moscow Banker
This piece of information, from a source who claims to know the buyer personally, narrows down the list of 33 Russian billionaires to these men.
• Boris Ivanishvili, Impexbank; worth $3.9 billion
• VagitAlekperov, Imperial Bank; worth $11 billion
• Alexander Lebedev, National Reserve Bank,worth $3.5 billion
• Nikolai Tsvetkov, Uralsib; worth $5.2 billion
• AndreiMelnichenko,MDM-Bank; worth $2.7 billion
• GermanKhan, Alfa Group, worth $6.1 billion
• SergeiPopov, MDM-Bank; worth $2.7 billion
• Alexei Kuzmichov, Alfa Group; worth $4.8 billion

But Not Russian
The only way to square this clue with the first is to focus on Moscow bankers who come from countries outside the Russian Federation.
• GermanKhan, born in Ukraine
•VagitAlekperov, born in Azerbaijan
• Boris Ivanishvili, born and currently residing in Georgia

Most Likely Suspect
Alekperov is more of an oilman than a banker, and Khan has art-aficionado friends who would have advised him on auction protocol. So that leaves …
• Boris Ivanishvili*
He fits the profile. Plus, he sold his Moscow bank a week before the auction, giving him $550 million in extra spending money.

*We think. Based purely on speculation and circumstantial evidence.

Additional reporting by Lauren Schuker.

The Hunt for the Red Collector