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.