Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — It was a question whispered throughout this week’s contemporary art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s: “How’s Steve’s stuff selling?”

Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, has long been a subject of fascination in the art world, as he amassed one of the world’s most eclectic and valuable private collections. This season, Cohen raised eyebrows by putting up for sale the largest single group of works he has sold at one time. He also drew heightened scrutiny because the sales coincided with a guilty plea by Cohen’s firm, SAC Capital Advisors, on insider trading charges.

All told, Cohen’s sales raised about $88 million. It is unclear, however, exactly how much Cohen made from the sales because before the auction, Sotheby’s — where he sold the majority of his works — had given him a guarantee. In other words, Cohen received an undisclosed sum of money for many of the pieces, regardless of the sale’s outcome.

People close to Cohen said that the sales had nothing to do with his mounting legal bills and financial penalties. As part of its settlement with the government, SAC has agreed to pay fines of $1.8 billion, money that will be paid directly by Cohen, who owns 100 percent of his firm.

Instead, these people say that the sales are reflective of Cohen’s trading instincts. For years, Cohen, 57, has been both a big buyer and a big seller. In selling a swath of works now, Cohen is taking advantage of a frothy market and culling his collection.

On Wednesday night at Sotheby’s, Cohen’s most successful dispositions were two abstract canvases, one by Gerhard Richter and the other by Brice Marden.

“A.B. Courbet,” a painting by Richter from 1986, fetched $26.4 million, exceeding the $20 million high estimate. It was bought by a telephone bidder from Mexico. Cohen had purchased the Richter last year at Art Basel in Switzerland for around $20 million.

He got $10.9 million for “The Attended,” a Marden painting from 1996-99 filled with looping colors of red, yellow, green and white. It had a $7 million to $10 million estimate.

There were disappointments. Surprisingly, two Andy Warhols that Cohen had put on the block sold at the low end of their estimated ranges.

“Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz),” from 1963, estimated to sell for $20 million to $30 million, sold for $20.3 million. The square canvas depicts Elizabeth Taylor’s face on a bright yellow background. Also, “5 Deaths on Turquoise,” from the artist’s celebrated Death and Disaster series, sold for $7.3 million. (A related piece from that series, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” sold by a different owner to a telephone bidder for $105.4 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a Warhol.)

And a work by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan — “Spermini,” a wall of latex masks of the artist’s face — failed to sell.


In the past, Cohen has occasionally put his name on works that he’s selling. This season, however, the catalogs did not designate him as a seller. But dealers familiar with his collection were more than eager to point out his holdings.

It is not known whether Cohen attended the auctions, or bought anything. He was not seen in the audience, but he could have been secreted away in a skybox overlooking the sales room.

Several of Cohen’s hedge fund peers were in the crowd, including Daniel S. Loeb of Third Point and David Ganek, formerly of Level Global Investors. A former protégé of Cohen’s at SAC, Ganek shut down his hedge fund after becoming ensnared by the government’s insider trading investigation. Ganek was never charged.

Cohen has not been criminally charged in the government’s case against SAC. But speaking this week at a DealBook conference, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, reiterated that SAC’s guilty plea did not provide any individuals immunity from prosecution.

“The criminal case, generally speaking, remains open,” Bharara said.