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Art Errors: Steve Cohen Evades Not Only the Feds, But Also the New Yorker’s Fact-Checkers

When I read the art-related passages in the New Yorker‘s Total Return: When the feds went after a hedge-fund legend (aka Steve Cohen, the mega-collector ), all I could think of was:

Where are the magazine’s fact-checkers when it really needs them?

Sheelah Kolhatkar, a former hedge fund analyst and current staff writer at the magazine, will publish a book next month enlarging upon on her magazine article’s subject—the failed effort of Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to pin insider-trading crimes on Cohen personally. I hope that Kolhatkar’s analysis of Cohen’s stock-market transactions is not as riddled with error and hyperbole as are her passages, near the end of her piece, about his art-market transactions.

Sheelah Kolhatkar

The most obvious (easily fact-checked) error is her statement that Cohen bought Giacometti‘s “Chariot” at Sotheby’s on Nov. 10. (It was on Nov. 4, 2014, at the Impressionist/Modern evening sale.) As CultureGrrl readers may remember, that sculpture attracted only one bid at $90 million ($101 million with buyer’s premium), which fell short of the presale estimate of its hammer price—“in excess of $100 million.”

Giacometti, “Chariot,” conceived 1950; cast 1951-2
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That purchase “made news,” as Kolhatkar said, but not just because it was a rare nine-figure price: After no one raised a paddle or offered a phone bid for “Chariot,” the auction house’s then co-chairman for Impressionist/Modern art, David Norman, won it for an unexpectedly low price, perhaps executing Cohen’s bidding instructions. The public had no way of  knowing whether the final price was less than the undisclosed amount guaranteed to the consignor or, if so, whether Sotheby’s (required to pay to the consignor the proceeds that he would have received had the bidding reached the guaranteed price) had taken a loss on the purchase by the buyer then identified as “Anonymous” but later outed as Cohen.

Perhaps to boost her protagonist’s big-spender reputation, Kolhatkar made two other Cohen transactions seem more impressively priced than they actually were. She mentioned that Cohen consigned a Dubuffet to Christie’s buoyant Looking Forward to the Past sale on May 11, 2015, at “an estimated sale price of $25 million.” What she neglected to mention is how that lot did: The bidding stopped short of its estimate, at $22 million—high enough to set an auction record for the artist (at $24.8 million, including the buyer’s premium), but disappointing relative to expectations.

Even more exaggerated was Kolhatkar’s account of Cohen’s purchase at the same sale of another Giacometti, “L’homme au doigt.”

Giacometti, “L’homme au doigt,” conceived in 1947
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what Sheelah wrote:

After several rounds of aggressive bidding [emphasis added], Cohen placed the winning bid, paying in total $141.3 million. It was the most anyone had ever paid for a sculpture at auction.

The last sentence was factual. But the “several rounds of aggressive bidding” was fiction. Here’s what I tweeted at the time of the sale about how the auctioneer handled the sluggish bidding on the sale’s star lot:

As with the other Giacometti that Cohen bought and the Dubuffet that he sold, his $126-million final bid on “L’homme au doigt” fell short of the presale estimate—“in the region of $130 million.”

Cohen’s outlays for art are enormous enough, without misleadingly inflating the tales of his bidding bravado.

an ArtsJournal blog