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To the victor go the spoils: Steve Cohen's Art Collection

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According to the only dictionary I have handy, Art is defined as the diminutive of the male name Arthur. Most of my dictionaries are just books of baby names. But you know what else Art is? It's beauty. It's inspiration. It's the apogee of human expression. Billionaire Steve Cohen collects apogees of human expression like they're all a bunch of little Arthurs. To the victor go the spoils. And Steven A. Cohen, so far, is definitely a victor.

Steven A. Cohen has planted his flag firmly at the top of the hedge fund mountain, bringing in dollars for clients and, most importantly, for himself. Exact figures are notoriously hard to come by, but Cohen's net worth has recently been estimated at $9.3 billion. I'd argue no net is worth that much money. But you know what may be? Works by Picasso, Johns, and de Kooning.

This March, word got out that Cohen had purchased a Pablo Picasso painting for an estimated $155 million. The painting, entitled "Le Reve", features a woman. Or, rather, it's Picasso's unique depiction of a woman. Head tilted to her right, she appears to be clutching her stomach, having eaten a bad stew or quiche probably because the woman depicted in "Le Reve" is French. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is slightly upturned, in something approaching a smile. Her head? It is neatly bisected by a crevasse. You have to see it. Which is what you are bound to hear if you visit a home that happens to house an art work valued at $155 million. To the victor go the spoils. To the victor's friends? Guided spoils tours.

And on this tour you will also see other pieces like the Jasper Johns "Flag, 1958" painting. This painting, of an American flag, allegedly cost Cohen $110 million. Cohen picked up the painting in 2010 which means his taste in art, as measured by his high-priced purchases, have appreciated nearly 50 percent in three years. These are the kinds of returns that hedge fund moguls can believe in. The "Flag, 1958" is easier to explain than Picasso's dream girl, largely because it is what it says it is. It's a flag. In this case, an American flag. And since it's 1958? Well, there are only 48 stars on it. If Johns had waited just one more year, after Alaska and Hawaii became states, he could have thrown 50 stars on his painting. I'm no art expert, but I daresay Cohen may have paid Picassoesque prices for a painting of that caliber.

Continuing our tour, we now come to possibly the most expensive art in Cohen's collection. Adjusted for inflation, the price Cohen paid for "Woman III", by Willem de Kooning, is more than any painting in Cohen's collection. Back in 2006, $137.5 million could buy you many things or one de Kooning. Cohen picked the latter and, for his troubles, now owns one of the most expensive paintings in the world. Like the Picasso, de Kooning's subject was a woman. Like Picasso, de Kooning eschewed standard depictions of the human form. Great swaths of blues and yellows and whites combine on the canvas to become... well, it's definitely a woman. Or a minotaur. Possibly a cloud?

Steven A. Cohen didn't get to where he is by caring whether some philistine sees a woman or a minotaur in one of his expensive pieces of art. And why should he? At the vertiginous heights that Cohen has climbed, the air is thin and the breathing becomes labored. The mind, short of oxygen, tends to distort and distend all images. Perhaps it is a woman after all. Anyway, art is subjective. Which is wisdom you'd be hard-pressed to find in any book of baby names.




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