One notable instance is the recent sale of Jasper Johns' 1959 painting Highway for around $20 million. Midas-touch Steve Wynn was the seller, having bought it in a multi-painting deal (seven contemporary works for $50 million) just 16 months ago. The buyer is a bit of a mystery, though George and Leanne Roberts (as in Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) are the likely candidates. San Francisco art advisor Mary Zlot represented the buyer, according to a knowledgeable source (Zlot declined to comment). The Robertses are among Zlot's clients, and they've recently been looking for an important Johns.
George Roberts' assistant, regarding the Johns, said, "Mr. Roberts is not interested in speaking with you about this at this time." Robert Mnuchin, head of C&M Arts in Manhattan, confirmed that he played a role in selling the painting.
"What are these people thinking?" wondered one expert in the trade, who asked not to be identified. And here's why the question makes sense. In 1994, Peter Brant faced a financial crunch -- like many others during the recession. Brant is a Greenwich, Conn., horseman (polo -- the sport, not the shirt), newsprint millionaire and husband to supermodel Stephanie Seymour. He owned Highway and leveraged it for cash from Sotheby's. He decided to sell and Sotheby's handled the sale. The painting, carrying an estimate of $8 million-$10 million, fell flat, a victim of the recession and the painting's overexposure to the market.
Sotheby's wound up being stuck with Highway, having given Brant a guarantee on the painting, and sold it to New York dealer William Acquavella. There it sat for four years, priced at $6.5 million. In March 1998, Wynn himself (not Mirage Resorts or the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art) bought Highway, which measures ca. 76 by 61 inches, and six other contemporary paintings for $50 million. Since it was a bulk deal, there were no individual prices, but in one document Wynn listed the value of Highway at $9.3 million -- a figure that seemed more than a little high at the time, given the painting's recent history. [For what happened to Wynn's other contemporary paintings, click here.]
So. From $6.5 million in 1994 to $9.3 million in 1998 to $20 million in 1999? Wynn earned part of it by promoting the painting through his Las Vegas empire. But more significantly, he caught a lucky break. Johns sold his White Flag for a reported $20 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, setting a new benchmark for the artist. And where White Flag is easily the more important and perhaps more interesting painting (it's definitely earlier, dated 1955, and larger, at ca. 79 by 121 inches) and belongs in a museum, Highway is far more colorful and commercial.
Even so, the price is stiff. "It's a tremendous amount of money," said one dealer. "It's a very, very good painting. It's a teeny-weeny bit more than it's worth." What's it worth? "I think it's a $15-million painting," said the dealer. Another trade source said, "I would not, in the present market, pay $20 million." Why would someone? "Because they don't care about the money?" After all, there are apparently some people who consider $5 million "a teeny-weeny bit."
Continuing his conjecture, the second trade source speculates, "Because they're told that nothing else is on the market? Who knows. There are a lot of weird things going on out there."
The market is, oddly enough, given high priority in a press release (dated May 24 but released in early July) from the Portland Art Museum announcing its purchase of Paul Cézanne's Paris: Quai de Bercy -- La Halle aux Vins. In a strange twist, the release's first paragraph made no mention of the Cézanne's title or date (1872), but did state, "The purchase was announced on the heels of the recent sale in New York of a Cézanne still life for $60.5 million, a record sale price for the artist." The undoubtedly unintended message: the priorities these days are 1) artists (name brand); 2) price (commodity); 3) art (the object itself).
The rest of the release goes on to provide more standard information, including title and date, as well as some unusual bits that the editors of Time magazine used to call "fun facts." For instance, that Joseph Rishel, a Ph.D. and senior curator of European Paintings before 1900 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and the organizer of the 1995-96 traveling exhibition, "Cézanne"), has deemed Paris: Quai de Bercy "one of the 100 most important paintings in Cézanne's life" (there are 805 paintings in the catalogue raisonné). Good to know: the Portland's Cézanne is in the top 12.4 percent of all Cézanne oils, in terms of importance.
For the record, Quai de Bercy was on the market in 1997, when Sotheby's offered it for sale. It was one of 10 paintings once owned by noted collector Auguste Pellerin. Estimated at $3 million-$4 million, it went unsold, which was a blow to Sotheby's, who had given the anonymous consignor a guarantee for the Pellerin paintings. New York dealer Richard Feigen subsequently bought the painting from Sotheby's and then sold it to the Portland Art Museum.
Neither Feigen nor the museum would disclose the sale price, though both parties said it was in the "seven figures." (My guess: around $3.5 million.) Feigen added that the price would have been higher "if it hadn't been bought in at Sotheby's. It's an early, tough picture."
Portland apparently wanted it partly because Camille Pissarro, who admired and encouraged Cézanne, had come to own the painting by 1873. The museum owns a Pissarro from that year (The Red House), and owning both gives the museum and its visitors a chance to see how, or to what extent, the Pissarro and Cézanne were influencing each other at that point.