Media Moguls Own the Best Art

Some of the most commercial minds of the age are also our biggest aesthetes

That the most important works of art in the world—from the highest-priced Old Master to the most valuable contemporary paintings—should have been collected, traded, and bequeathed by the world’s most successful media moguls (almost always men, whose fortunes depend on the image), is an obvious but little noted market synchronicity.

On the other hand, media people specialize in the ephemeral and trivial—not to mention commercial. Fine art, and its voracious consumption by media billionaires, might actually be an antidote to the superficial. Whatever the reason, the media elite are the art elite, making up the roll call of the world’s most important collectors.

The aforementioned Old Master painting, Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents, was bought at Sotheby’s London in 2002 for £49.5 million ($76.7 million) by Ken Thomson, or Lord Thomson of Fleet, the Canadian press baron who, at his death in 2006, was the ninth-richest person in the world.


The most expensive work of art privately traded—indeed, one of the most expensive objects ever sold, including real estate—belonged to the Hollywood mogul David Geffen, who many critics believe has the best private collection in existence. This work—a Jackson Pollock painting called No. 5, 1948—was sold in November 2006 by Geffen to Mexican collector David Martínez Guzman for $151.8 million. What might be the second-most expensive art work ever traded also belonged to Geffen: Willem de Kooning’s Woman III, sold to hedge funder Steve Cohen in 2006 for an estimated $149.1 million.

(Making this sale all the more exotic was that Geffen obtained the painting in 1994 through a secret deal with a Tehran museum in a swap for a 16th-century Persian manuscript, which was passed from Geffen’s hands on an Iranian air strip.)

Another Hollywood veteran as well known for his art as his producing credits is Douglas Cramer, who moved from advertising to ABC and then Paramount TV, creating some of America’s most popular—if least artistic—shows, from The Brady Bunch and Star Trek to Dynasty. While he assembled his famous collection, he also founded the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art.

The next most-exalted private collection in the U.S. belongs to Si Newhouse, the Condé Nast chairman, who while turning the low-rent, Seventh Avenue trade house he inherited from his father into the most prestigious magazine publisher in the country, was also turning himself into an incomparable aesthete.

Without a doubt there’s a correlation between an addictive acquisitiveness for media holdings and cultural objects—a penchant for buying companies, newspapers, and publishing houses while snapping up works of art or antiquities. The prime example: William Randolph Hearst, who desired not only papers, magazines, and film studios, but also fine furniture, sculpture, ancient art, Old Masters, and more.

Charles Saatchi, Europe’s top collector of contemporary art, also has a ravenous appetite for buying the latest artist in bulk. And in the period he was running the then-largest ad agency in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi, he snapped up other agencies in much the same way.

The case of Saatchi, whose level of celebrity in Britain has no U.S. counterpart, makes clear how someone who deals professionally with the potency of images would be naturally adept at the art game. In his best-selling book, My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic, he writes: “After frittering away my best years writing advertising copy, I obviously believe in the power of words and imagery.”

In the same book, Saatchi includes a long-standing criticism of his taste: “The concerns of an advertising executive centre upon novelty, immediacy of impact, and relevance to the target market. Many would say that these are the qualities that have characterized your collection.” But he has a rebuttal: “The ‘adman’ theory is very appealing, very popular with commentators. But the snobbery of those who think an interest in art is the province of gentle souls of rarefied sensibility never fails to entertain. I liked working in advertising but don’t believe my taste in art, such as it is, was entirely formed by TV commercials.”

Saatchi dominates the public imagination, but the roll call of other ad executive collectors is impressive. For starters, there’s William Burnett Benton, co-founder of Benton & Bowles, which by 1936 was the sixth-largest advertising firm in the world. Benton sold the agency to his partners that year for over $1 million, a vast sum in those days, investing much of his fortune in collecting American art. (While in the U.S. State Department, Joe McCarthy accused Benton of displaying “lewd works of art.”)

William H. Weintraub co-founded Esquire in 1933, and a decade later formed his eponymous advertising agency with notable early art directors such as Paul Rand and Bill Bernbach. At the same time, he was corresponding with Diego Giacometti and many of the artist’s contemporaries, and building a renowned collection of furniture, sculpture, and paintings. One of his Giacometti consoles recently sold at Christie’s for $434,500.

Another advertising pioneer as famous for his eye for art as for his campaigns was the late Jay Chiat, who kick-started Frank Gehry’s career by giving him the commission for the agency building in Venice, Calif. Its binocular entrance, designed with sculptor Claes Oldenburg, became a local landmark and the architect’s first major public success. (Chiat gave Gehry his first museum show, secretly putting up the money—and earning Gehry’s wrath when he was later found out.)

Chiat was also the first American collector of now-megastar Damian Hirst, and hosted a very early one-man show of works from his collection in his converted firehouse townhouse in New York in 1993.

In Germany, Christian Boros, born in 1964 and owner of the eponymous Boros Group, one of Germany’s most successful communications agencies, has one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Germany. Called the Boros Foundation, it’s on display in a converted World War II bunker in central Berlin.

 

Given that their professional success is arguably dependent on being the first to recognize and exploit the new and the unusual, it’s not surprising that advertising savants are adept at spotting genuinely new art. And contemporary art can provide fertile imagery that can be adapted and co-opted into the language of advertising. As Bernbach put it in a phrase DDB still loves to quote: “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

Both artists and creative directors are constantly panning through endless images and combinations of images and ideas, whether in their minds or in their offices and studios, looking for  the “right” ones.

Condé’s Newhouse, in fact, was tutored by the legendary Alexander Liberman—photographer, painter, sculptor—who as the longtime editorial director of the Condé Nast organization understood better than anyone how all of these skills could be combined.

As for Liberman and Newhouse, they followed the lead of Frank Crowninshield, the long-serving first editor of Vanity Fair—which closed in 1936 and which Newhouse revived in 1983—who used the magazine to publish the first-ever images in the U.S. by Picasso, Man Ray, Matisse, and Duchamp.

Geffen and Newhouse, as the twin giants of U.S. collectors, have a complex intertwined history, especially around the most expensive living artist, Jasper Johns. When Johns’ longtime dealer, Sonnabend Gallery, privately sold two of his key works in 1998, one went to Geffen, the other to Newhouse—each for a supposed $20 million. A decade earlier, Newhouse had bought one of Johns’ most famous paintings, False Start, at Sotheby’s N.Y. for $17 million, which he then directly sold to Geffen.


The correlation between those who spend their time with relatively fleeting commercial imagery, and who also buy very expensive single images for themselves, suggests an innate understanding of why those latter images are more important, groundbreaking, and lasting.

“When you buy art, as opposed to looking at it, there’s a discipline,” media investor Max Palevsky once said. “You have to really look at a bunch of things to decide, ‘Is this worth that much money to me?’ People who collect seriously look seriously.”

Many of these tycoon collectors started as visual apprentices in the business. Daniel Filipacchi, the most important magazine publisher in France, was a Paris Match photographer and famous radio producer and presenter, before forming his magazine empire. He is also one of the world’s leading surrealist collectors.

Similarly, Hugh Hefner was a magazine copywriter and cartoonist before founding Playboy. In December 2010, Christie’s sold a selection of his Playboy archive of drawings, cartoons, photographs, and other art, including a Tom Wesselmann sculpture that was auctioned off for $1,874,500.

Hefner’s rival (if not imitator), Bob Guccione, was a professional commercial artist before founding Penthouse; he devoted much of his later career to both painting and collecting art. His truly important world-class collection, which included everything from Botticelli and Dürer to Van Gogh and Picasso, was understandably Guccione’s proudest asset, albeit one he leveraged repeatedly.

Other major publishing collectors include Frieder Burda, heir to the Bunte magazine fortune, who opened his own museum in Baden-Baden in 2004. (Bunte, the tone of which was based on the aesthetic of Andy Warhol, once was Germany’s most-popular weekly.) In New York, Peter Brant actually publishes Warhol’s own old magazine, Interview, along with Art in America, while voraciously collecting art by close friends and contemporaries like Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons.

And Benedikt Taschen has managed to turn his love for art into an enormously proftable book publishing phenomenon. His extensive personal collection was given its own exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art in Madrid, and feeds his own titles.

Finally, 2010 also brought the surprise announcement that Pierre Bergé, France’s great aesthete-entrepreneur, who had already made the news with the record-breaking Christie’s sale of the collection he assembled with partner Yves Saint Laurent, had purchased, through a consortium, the country’s most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde.

Missing from this equation are the “new-media” moguls and young techno-nerds who have been amassing great fortunes, not one of whom seems to have even the slightest interest in art. In fact, while Bill Gates does not own any original paintings, he does own the rights to their reproduction; his house apparently is filled with plasma-screen, high-definition versions of works whose global copyrights he purchased.

It’s possible that the sheer interchangeable vastness of the digital domain and its limitless universe of free-floating imagery renders its reigning moguls incapable of the smallest aesthetic decision, let alone the ability to choose one still, resonant object that cannot be exchanged with a double-click for another.