REPORTS FROM LAS VEGAS say billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn elbowed a multimillion-dollar Picasso painting while it was hanging in his office. Wynn, best known for his casino development deals resulting in tourist attractions including The Bellagio, The Mirage and The Wynn Las Vegas, found himself at the forefront of the art scene for an office accident. Although accidents do happen, Steve Wynn didn’t become a billionaire by accident.
During a meeting at his offices at Wynn Las Vegas with news anchor Barbara Walters, director Nora Ephron and others, the billionaire developer accidentally put his elbow into a Picasso portrait hanging on a wall behind him. The damaged piece, reports indicate, now has a hole in it about the size of a silver dollar.
So what does this art news story have to do with the debate over which work of art will be deemed the most valuable painting on record? More than you might think.
In Picasso’s mature analytical cubist style, the damaged painting is a characteristic portrait of the artist’s mistress, Marie Therese Walter, painted in 1932. The work, titled “Le Reve” (a.k.a. The Dream), is an unquestioned masterpiece by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). The piece was partially inspired, like many fine art works of the period, by the interpretive early 20th-century writings on dreams and dream imagery of Sigmund Freud.
Wynn bought the Picasso in 1997 for $48.4 million. About the time he elbowed the valuable canvas, he had agreed to privately sell the work to art collector Steven Cohen for $139 million. Why was Wynn asking a sky-high price of $139 million for “Le Reve” when a comparable Picasso work sold for only $95.2 million in May 2006?
That’s right, the 51-by-38-inch oil on canvas by Picasso titled “Portrait of Dora Maar” from 1932 sold for nearly $45 million less than Wynn’s asking price for “Le Reve.”
Wynn’s $139 million price may be rather steep, according to some market-watchers. The price for “Le Reve” seems somewhat out of line when compared with the actual sales price for other Picassos.
During a recent appearance on Comcast CN8 TV’s “Money Matters Today” show, I discussed value indicators. One important indicator is marketability and provenance (or the history of the painting, including its former owners and collections). So perhaps the asking price had little to do with the current market for Picasso portraits. If Wynn sold “Le Reve” for $139 million, he would have owned and sold the world’s most valuable painting, a marketing marvel.
The distinction of owning the most valuable painting in the world now belongs to cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder. In July 2006, Lauder purchased Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” circa 1907, for $135 million. If the previously arranged sale of Wynn’s Picasso painting was to take place with Cohen paying $139 million, the sale obviously would trump what Lauder paid to own the fabulous, albeit lesser-known, Klimt.
In the world of marketing, “the best” and “the most valuable” are commonly used terms. Billionaire Wynn certainly knows the power of such phrases and the power of owning such well-marketed commodities. His associates also know this to be true. For instance, have you ever listened to an interview with Donald Trump when he didn’t say he or his real-estate holdings were “the best?”
Of course, Steve Wynn didn’t become a billionaire by accident. He knows about sales and marketing. So when it comes to the fine-art market, if you can claim you once owned the most valuable painting in the world or that you sold the most valuable painting, that would certainly impact the value of other works in your collection via provenance. Such distinctions are coveted and would help you successfully sell almost anything, including art.
While Wynn was planning to sell the Picasso for a record $139 million, he now tells the press he’ll keep the painting and have it restored. Of course, the restoration work will affect the value of the painting, but if properly restored it will not devalue the painting significantly. If art history has any say in the matter, the elbowed Picasso may become more famous as a result of its new blemish.
I have worked in my fair share of museums and have seen my share of art storage, exhibition installation and gallery mishaps in which works of art were accidentally damaged. I think if every museum advertised such incidents the way Wynn did, we might know more about our museum collections and attract more visitors, lending much-needed support to our museums.
For those of us who may not have a Picasso hanging on our office walls, I think we should all learn a lesson from Steve Wynn. When you want to sell something for top dollar, it pays to advertise.