Having spent the majority of my professional career in the art trade, I’ve become acutely aware of the grim reality, and importance, of the Three D's: Death, Debt, and Divorce. Ask anyone in the art world what the biggest factors are in driving supply and ensuring the consignments keep a’flowing, and the D’s will inevitably be at the top of the list. The 3 D’s also allow the industry to retain a certain buoyancy in the face of global market contractions, as evidenced by Sotheby’s sale of Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I for $110 million while the rest of the world was reeling from the financial recession. As Philips CEO Edward Dolman eloquently put it: no matter the state of the market, divorce happens, people die, and debt has to be paid off. In debt, selling one’s artworks all but guarantees quick income; in divorce, spouses may sell off their works to cover costs, exact revenge, or dispel memories to start anew; and the death of a collector, whether a collector of one masterpiece or six dozen, often sets off a competitive frenzy amongst the dominant players in the art world to be the one to sell them.
One of the more popular D’s- Death- has had a big year, what with the recent Christie’s sale of 1,500 artworks and objects from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller that brought in $832.6 million, all of which is generously going to charity. However, Divorce is reclaiming the spotlight with a particularly unusual case involving a Mr. and Mrs. Goss. During divorce proceedings last year, Wall Street investor Bill Goss, who is reportedly worth $2.5 billion, and his wife Sue decided who would take ownership of a Picasso painting entitled Le Repos by flipping a coin. Sue won the coin toss, and when Bill later made arrangements to have it sent to her, she- somewhat remarkably- told him not to bother, as she had long since taken the painting out of its frame, and replaced it with a copy she painted herself. Somehow, the original ended up at Sotheby’s as a highlight of its recent May Modern and Impressionist Evening Sale, where it fetched $37 million against its projected estimate of $25-$35 million. Such publicity only heightened the interest in the work, one that was already particularly sought after by consignors and collectors alike, as its subject is Picasso’s infamous lover Marie Therese Walter. Its sale also continued the incredibly strong trend in Picasso’s prices; over the past few months alone, sixteen of his works have sold at the other Big Three- Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips- for a combined $228 million.
Not to be outdone by the Divorce Picasso, Debt followed suit with its own, involving Steve Wynn. Though Wynn’s financial situation can hardly be labelled true debt, the embattled real estate tycoon- having recently stepped down from his position as CEO of Wynn Resorts after sexual harassment allegations- likely opted to sell a pair of his Picasso’s to both capitalize on the stratospheric state of the artist’s market and to alleviate the $250 million hit to his net worth that followed his resignation. One of the paintings, Le Marin, was to be sold at Christie’s with an estimate of $70 million, but was pulled from the auction after it sustained irreparable damage. Wynn and his representatives have pointed the finger at Christie’s, but there is much speculation that Wynn himself caused it. This wouldn’t be the first time: in 2006, after agreeing to sell Picasso’s Le reve to mogul Steve Cohen, Wynn accidentally struck it, leaving a large hole in both the work and its valuation, in an incident that is now referred to as ‘the $40 million dollar elbow.’ I imagine the look on Mr. Wynn’s face to be pretty similar to the Picasso portrait he attempted to sell. All in all, it’s only June, and it’s hard to tell which is having a busier year: the D’s or Picasso.