He bought one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction—a $95 million Picasso. But no one knows who he is.
Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat.
On the evening of May 3, a rough-hewn man in a dark sport coat walked into the Sotheby’s auction room on York Avenue. He picked up a bidding paddle at the registration desk and was seated by the staff near the back of the room, in the faraway seats treated as Siberia in the art world’s hierarchy. In the gala atmosphere that now pervades the major evening auctions, the man seemed an odd figure. “He looked more like a KGB agent than a collector,” recalls art dealer Laszlo von Vertes, who sat directly behind him. “His nose looked broken, like a boxer’s. He had dyed hair and cheap shoes, like a bodyguard. If he walked into my gallery, I wouldn’t have sold him a painting.”
The crowd seemed buoyant that evening, reflecting the hot art market and the major paintings on offer. But things started slowly. Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer launched the sale with a Vuillard still life, which failed to break its low estimate. The next, a floral Monet, did better. Then the rough-hewn man started making vigorous use of his paddle. First he won a Monet landscape for $5 million, a cool $2 million above the high estimate. But that was merely prelude.
The star work that evening was Pablo Picasso’s 1941 Dora Maar au Chat, one of the largest portraits he painted of his Parisian lover, Dora Maar. Its high estimate stood at $50 million, but the bidding quickly soared to $60 million, then $65 million—and the man at the back of the room was coming on strong. Typically, bidders are subtle with their signals to the auctioneer: an eyebrow twitch, a nod, a removal of the glasses. But for the Dora Maar, says Von Vertes, the unknown man was “waving his paddle so hard he was fanning my face.” Such intimidation tactics are not unheard of, but deploying them at these prices was extraordinary. “Usually, whenever the bidding goes above $5 million, it becomes more temperate in its rhythm,” says Meyer. “But he always came right back with the next bid.”
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