Don't ask this art dealer about his client

Gallerist and former Goldman Sachs partner Robert Mnuchin, at his gallery with Louis XIV by Jeff Koons, bought Koons's Rabbit (above) for US$91.1 million (S$126 million) last week on behalf of an anonymous client, setting a record price at auction fo
Gallerist and former Goldman Sachs partner Robert Mnuchin, at his gallery with Louis XIV by Jeff Koons, bought Koons's Rabbit (right) for US$91.1 million (S$126 million) last week on behalf of an anonymous client, setting a record price at auction for a living artist.PHOTOS: NYTIMES, REUTERS

NEW YORK • At Christie's post-war art evening sale last Wednesday, the man of the hour was the gallerist and former Goldman Sachs partner Robert Mnuchin, who was bidding for an anonymous client.

He sat in an aisle seat near the front wearing a cream-coloured jacket and got in on the action when one of artist Jeff Koons' rare silver bunny sculptures came up for auction.

It arrived for sale from the collection of publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse Jr, who co-owned Conde Nast and died in 2017 at age 89.

Bidding started at US$40 million (S$55 million) and in less than 90 seconds reached US$60 million. Around and around the bidding went, but the man who never stopped raising his paddle was Mr Mnuchin, the 85-year-old father of United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

There was nothing flashy about Mr Robert Mnuchin, who was on a black Casio Ravine flip phone as the numbers sailed ever higher. Eventually, he placed the winning bid: US$80 million, which with fees amounted to US$91.1 million.

This broke the record for the most money paid at auction for a work by a living artist. A Hockney piece at Christie's last November also hammered at US$80 million, but wound up about US$800,000 cheaper than the Koons, once fees were included.

Over the next 24 hours, Mr Mnuchin's wife, Adriana, got numerous phone calls from friends who do not know about art congratulating them on the purchase. This was pretty ridiculous.

The couple - who until the younger Mr Mnuchin went to work for President Donald Trump, led a pretty controversy-free life - are not in the habit of buying paintings for nearly nine figures.

"We are not in the league," Mr Robert Mnuchin said in an interview.

Naturally, he was not about to divulge for whom he was buying the Koons.

Several art world insiders believed shortly after the auction that Mr Mnuchin might have been working on behalf of Mr Mitchell Rales, the chairman of the executive committee at Danaher, a Fortune 500 company. Mr Mnuchin helped build Mr Rales' collection, much of which now sits in Glenstone, a private museum in Potomac, Maryland.

However, people at higher levels later said a more likely scenario was that he was purchasing it for Mr Steven Cohen, the art collector and billionaire hedge fund investor who from 2016 through 2017 was banned from managing money other than his own as part of a settlement with the government over insider trading at his company, SAC Capital Advisors.

As part of the settlement, which also included a fine of US$1.8 billion, SAC was disbanded. Mr Cohen then launched Point72 Asset Management, which recently became fully operational.

Despite being a prodigious fund-raiser for the Republican Party, Mr Cohen, 62, has a long and deep involvement in the more progressive-minded art world.

His collection over the years has grown with pieces by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Koons and Damien Hirst.

Many of those works are at his sprawling Greenwich, Connecticut, estate, known for its 557 sq m ice skating rink in the backyard.

Although Mr Cohen's primary art adviser is Mr Sandy Heller, he has lent works to Mr Mnuchin's gallery over the years.

In 2015, Mr Cohen was photographed alongside Mr Mnuchin at the Mnuchin Gallery when it opened a show of the minimalist artist Carl Andre's early sculptures.

Although Mr Mnuchin has sold works by scores of modern artists and staged shows for African-American artists such as Ed Clark and David Hammons, he has done little flipping of his own. The pieces he and Adriana have in their possession are all things they love.

"We've never had anything in a warehouse," he said. "I don't even like the word 'collection'. It sounds like stamps."

There was not likely a big payday for the services he rendered last Wednesday, several art world figures said. But had Mr Heller sat in the gallery doing the bidding, it would immediately have drawn attention to Mr Cohen. And Mr Mnuchin likes being on the floor in the middle of the action.

He finds moments like this a parallel to his previous career in trading.

"It was an intense business," he said of working at Goldman Sachs. "It was very competitive and I was successful at building relationships with serious institutional people that I could work for them and myself at the same time. That I could serve as their agent and be their principal. And I think I've carried that over somewhat into this."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2019, with the headline 'Don't ask this art dealer about his client'. Print Edition | Subscribe