Top Billionaire Art Collectors

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Suffering from one of its worst years in recent memory, the art world got a boost in June when French billionaire Francois Pinault opened his new museum of modern art, the Punta della Dogana, in the old customs house in Venice at the entrance to the Grand Canal. In what some have called “the Dogana effect”, the opening was also seen as helping to boost attendance at Art Basel, Switzerland’s respected contemporary art fair later that month. While sales for the toned down fair are hard to come by, a record crowd of 61,000 including billionaires Mitchell Rales, Eli Broad and Roman Abramovich showed up for the event.

Wealthy patrons and collectors have been the lifeblood of the art world for centuries, from the Italian Medici family to American industrialists Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. This is still true today, even as art valuations plummet. Indeed, in a downturn like this, billionaires are among the only people who can still afford to buy expensive works of art or help support museums.

Broad, for example, spent $30 million in December to bail out the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to save the museum from having to sell artwork and move from its current headquarters. Several months earlier, Estée Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder donated $131 million to New York’s Whitney Museum, of which he is chairman emeritus, in part to help it retain its location in the Upper East Side. (See “The Most Powerful Billionaires Charts.”)

In pictures: Top billionaire art collectors

Video: Billionaire passion for art

Art is a passion for these billionaires, but it is also a valuable asset. So how have their personal collections held up over the past year, and who among the rarefied wealthy owns the most valuable works?

Forbes recently scoured the art world to find out, spending weeks consulting with collectors, art appraisers, insurers, auction houses and gallery owners around the world. We have decided not to include members of the art trade, such as dealer Larry Gagosian, or corporate collections, such as that of Bill Gates, which is owned by

Microsoft

. We decided not to include members of the art trade, such as dealer Larry Gagosian, or corporate collections.

Since the art world negotiates confidential information, most of the experts who spoke to us requested anonymity when discussing private art collections. While some disagreed on the exact numbers, nearly all agreed on the top billionaire collectors. The final list includes 14 individuals who hold private collections worth $700 million or more. Estimates are deliberately conservative and should be viewed as “at least” figures.

Leading the ranks is Philip Niarchos, son of the late shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos and father of Stavros III, who was linked in the past to American heiress Paris Hilton. He is said to have the most valuable collection, worth at least $2 billion. Philip’s father began collecting art in 1949, and during his lifetime acquired many well-known masterpieces, including Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” and the self-portrait “Yo, Picasso” by Pablo Picasso. Since his father bequeathed the collection to him, Philip has quietly added contemporary works such as “Self-Portrait” by Jean-Michel Basquiat and “Shot Red Marilyn” by Andy Warhol.

During our quest to pin down these extraordinary collections, we uncovered a new fortune belonging to Esther Grether, a little-known Swiss cosmetics heiress whose 7.5% stake in Swatch and an art collection of over 600 pieces. , including those of Paul Cezanne, Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon, make her not only a billionaire but also the only woman on our list of top art collectors. She keeps the works in a printing house that she has converted, and where she also lives.

Valuing art is an obvious challenge, and even more so today with an art market affected by the same liquidity crisis as any other product or service. “The confusion [in valuations] has to do with the lower number of sales,” said Dr. Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, fine art consultant and former head of Old Master drawings at Christies in New York. “Theoretically, there are fewer benchmarks since last fall. fewer buyers in the market and a healthy supply of new art, the contemporary art market fell sharply last year, with some pieces depreciating by up to 90%.

Entertainment mogul David Geffen, for example, made the list although the value of his collection has been hotly debated. Some have argued that his collection, made up of landmark works by Jasper Johns, Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock, could be worth up to $2 billion. One person said the entire collection was only worth $400 million, due to falling contemporary art prices. We set the value at $1 billion.

Either way, most agreed that Geffen turned out to have impeccable timing to sell part of his collection three years ago. Within months in 2006, he apparently sold four paintings for $420 million, including Jasper Johns’ “False Start” to Citadel’s Kenneth Griffin for $80 million and de Kooning’s “Police Gazette” and “Woman III” to Steve Cohen of SAC Capital for $63.5. million and $137 million, respectively.

Cohen also makes the cut with a collection valued at $750 million, though he probably couldn’t sell his de Koonings for anything close to what he paid for them. Yet he earned a reputation as a prolific and adventurous collector. He is the buyer, for example, of British artist Damien Hirst’s work, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – a 13-foot tiger shark in a formaldehyde glass tank. The creature would have rotted and been replaced. It was also the inspiration for a book, The $12 Million Plush Sharkby economist Don Thompson, who used it as a symbol of greed in the contemporary art world.

Cohen’s passion for art may even exceed his love of business: SAC Capital has taken a stake in

Sotheby’s

auction house earlier this year, even as the auction house reported losses of $34.5 million for the first quarter of 2009.

In pictures: Top billionaire art collectors

Video: Billionaire passion for art

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