Unprecedented Exhibit Of Cohen’s Art Opens Today

Apr 2 2009 | 10:16am ET

SAC Capital Advisors founder Steven Cohen is a notoriously secretive fellow. But for the next two weeks, he is inviting the public to enjoy 20 masterpieces from his extraordinary art collection with an exhibition at Sotheby’s in New York.

Cohen's Van Gogh and de Kooning: photo by Jonathan Shazar/FINalternativesCohen's Van Gogh and de Kooning: photo by Jonathan Shazar/FINalternativesThe show, which opens today, shows no signs of its hasty conception—the first discussion about it was held just six weeks ago, and it was assembled in just two weeks—focuses on female subjects, featuring such iconic pieces as Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe and a legendary Willen de Kooning painting. It marks the first time that Cohen’s collection has been publicly exhibited together, although the hedge fund honcho has lent pieces to museums and other exhibitions in the past.

“It was very spontaneous and unplanned,” Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, said. Despite Cohen’s penchant for secrecy, Meyer said that he was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of opening his collection to the public.

While speculation about the SAC chief’s motives has been rife—the hedge fund owns a 5.9% stake in the auction house, building on it last month after Sotheby’s shares hit a 20-year low in February—Meyer insists that Cohen has no agenda in putting his treasures on display.

“He did it because we asked him,” he said.

Pieces by Lucian Freud, Matisse, Amadeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso: photo by Jonathan Shazar/FINalternativesPieces by Lucian Freud, Matisse, Amadeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso: photo by Jonathan Shazar/FINalternatives

The remarkable exhibit features works by such luminaries of art history as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Robert Rauschenberg and Vincent Van Gogh, as well as more contemporary pieces by Richard Prince, Marlene Dumas and Lisa Yuskavage. “Women” also includes three excellent canvasses by Pablo Picasso.

Sotheby’s would not comment on the insured value of the collection on display, but published reports have estimated their combined worth at about $450 million. Cohen bought the de Kooning, “Women III,” from David Geffen for $137 million. He paid $80 million for Warhol’s “Turquoise Marilyn,” the centerpiece of the Sotheby’s exhibit, and $34.7 million for one of the Picassos. Cézanne’s “Portrait of a Woman” cost him $10 million in 2004, and Dumas’ “The Visitor” fetched $6.3 million last year.

To celebrate the unprecedented exhibit, Sotheby’s has published a hardcover catalog—unfortunately not available for sale to the public—featuring an essay by the noted art historian Joachim Pissarro, the great-grandson of the great French painter Camille Pissarro and a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The idea of an exhibition took hold when Cohen hosted several Sotheby’s personnel for dinner about six weeks ago. Meyer recalled having both the Warhol and Picasso’s “Le Repos” in his line of sight and suggesting that they be exhibited together for the public. The planned exhibit grew to include 18 other pieces featuring women as the Sotheby’s team “walked through [Cohen’s home] and saw quite a lot of pictures of women.” Meyer refused further comment on how Cohen has his collection displayed at his Greenwich, Conn., estate.

In addition to the Sotheby’s show, visitors to New York can see two other Cohen-owned pieces on display to the public: Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on long-term loan, and another Picasso, “Homme a la Pipe,” is part of an exhibit of the artist’s late work at the Gagosian Gallery.

Sotheby’s officials said they could not estimate how many visitors might come to see Cohen’s masterpieces, but that a similar two-week exhibit of Judaica treasures from the Valmadonna Trust Library in February drew about 10,000 during its run.

“Women: A Loan Exhibition from the Collection of Stephen and Alexandra Cohen” runs at Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters through April 14.

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