For nearly 40 years, David Geffen has been making big deals in the realms of music, movies and Broadway musicals. Now, 63 years old and a billionaire four times over, he's caused a stir by selling one painting for a record $140 million and two others for a combined $143.5 million, all within the last two months.
But this hardly leaves him with empty walls to fill. For years, insiders have acknowledged Geffen's inventory as one of the largely unseen wonders of the contemporary art world.
"Piece for piece, work for work, there's no collection that has a better representation of postwar American art than David Geffen's. Period," said Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, who has seen Geffen's collection and recently borrowed two Robert Rauschenberg works for a museum exhibition. "It is to postwar American art what the Frick Collection is to Old Master painting."
Since the sales, a lot of people have been wondering out loud and in print if Geffen is trying to raise money for what would be his most ambitious purchase ever -- the $2 billion or so it could cost to buy the Los Angeles Times.
Yet even though the mogul is a contender to buy the newspaper from its parent Tribune Co. -- as are fellow local billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, bidding as a team -- many in the art world see a simpler explanation for Geffen's latest moves: Take a collector-investor with a history of excellent timing, place him in the middle of the hottest art market in 15 years and this is what happens.
To those who have watched Geffen quietly amass paintings by Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning, these sales make a lot of sense. The art market is, in the words of one contemporary art specialist at Christie's auction house, "white-hot."
The auction house Sotheby's, which set a contemporary art sales record last year, on Wednesday set a one-night auction record with nearly $500 million in sales. Rival Christie's has reported similar numbers. In July came word that Gustav Klimt's recently restituted portrait "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" had fetched $135 million -- then the costliest painting sale ever made public.
Then came the revelation that Steve Wynn had been on the brink of selling a Picasso for $139 million before accidentally putting his elbow through the canvas. All which is bound to interest someone with a collection like Geffen's.
In October, buyers confirmed Geffen's sale of two works: De Kooning's "Police Gazette" (1955), to hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen for $63.5 million; and Johns' "False Start" (1959), to another hedge-fund billionaire, Kenneth Griffin, for $80 million. Last week, sources disclosed that Geffen sold Pollock's drip painting "No. 5, 1948" for $140 million. (Though the New York Times cited sources identifying the buyer as David Martinez, the financier's law firm on Thursday called the report incorrect.)
So much for Klimt's reign as costliest artist. And so much for the Geffen collection's low profile.
Climbing the ladder
Geffen, who grew up in working-class Brooklyn, got his entertainment-trade start in the mailroom at the William Morris talent agency. His first big score was a deal representing singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, and he made his first million by age 27.
By 30 he'd founded Asylum Records, which popularized the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, among others. In 1994, he formed DreamWorks SKG with fellow moguls Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
They sold the studio to Paramount Pictures in late 2005 for $1.6 billion -- a move that may have freed up a tidy sum for Geffen. Last month, Forbes magazine estimated his worth at $4.6 billion.
Though he's been relatively quiet about his interest in art -- he declined to comment for this article -- Geffen has been seriously collecting postwar works, and occasionally pruning his collection, for three decades. For years, Geffen has been a familiar figure at New York contemporary art auctions, often appearing in casual clothes with dealer Larry Gagosian at his side.
Curators and dealers say the heart of his collection amounts to fewer than 50 choice pieces. He rarely lends to museums.
Which leaves many people wondering: Just what does Geffen have, and how do these sales fit into the larger picture?
A matter of taste
Geffen mostly favors Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art works from artists such as Pollock, De Kooning, Johns and Rauschenberg, but he's also bought at least two David Hockneys. In the case of Johns and De Kooning, Schimmel noted, Geffen still owns more important works by each than those he sold last month.
"Most people in his position financially have much, much bigger collections," said Richard Polsky, a Sausalito dealer and author of the art-world memoir "I Bought Andy Warhol." Instead of building a larger art inventory such as those left behind by J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon and Armand Hammer, Polsky said, "Geffen took the high road and decided he didn't need that much. I don't know if he had an intuitive sense of quality, or he had good advice. But the guy bought the best. I'd rather have his collection than Eli Broad's." (Broad declined to comment for this article.)
As for why Geffen might be selling now, Polsky said, "He's smart, and he's selling at the top of the market.
"I don't blame him. He's doing the right thing, in my opinion."
The mystery of it all
Still, to others, Geffen's moves are intriguing.
"Once a day, somebody calls me and wants to talk about it," said one Southern California gallery director, requesting anonymity. "Some collectors really enjoy the game, really enjoy the buying and selling. And that's not what we've seen from Geffen over the years. He has honed, and he has sold things to get better things" -- but now, "that doesn't appear to be what he's doing.... So this is a surprise."
But, the director added, "It could just be that he doesn't love [these artworks] as much as he did, and he's moving on. It does happen."
David A. Ross, chairman of the Artist Pension Trust curatorial committee in New York, is another expert who's seen Geffen's collection -- and another skeptic when it comes to the building-a-war-chest theory.
"He's used his intelligence and tenacity to assemble an incredible body of work," said Ross, who toured Geffen's Beverly Hills house about seven years ago, when Ross was director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As for the recent sales, "three transactions do not a pattern make," Ross said, noting that for all the dollars that Geffen's collection would bring, "this is not a primary asset in the man's portfolio."
Searching for clues
With Geffen mum and most non-auction art deals conducted without public scrutiny, Geffen's precise holdings remain fodder for speculation. But not every move has been cloaked.
For a 1998 New Yorker profile, writer John Seabrook visited Geffen's Beverly Hills home -- Geffen also has a Malibu place and a Manhattan apartment -- and sighted a Pollock, a De Kooning, an Arshile Gorky, a Rauschenberg, one Johns in the hall and another in the master bedroom.
In 2003, Artnews magazine reported that Geffen had "the largest private holdings of works by Pollock, Johns, and de Kooning," including such standout works as De Kooning's "Woman III" (1952-53) and "Interchange" (1955). Geffen also owns Johns' "Target With Plaster Cast" (1955) and "Out the Window" (1959).
Art of the deal
The history of "Woman III" makes clear that Geffen's collecting has been more than a casual pastime. He wound up with that work after a complex trade in 1994 that involved a handoff in the international zone of the Vienna airport. One side started with a 16th century book of Persian miniature paintings (estimated value: $20 million), the other with the De Kooning. Before long, Geffen had the De Kooning and the book was in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
In public transactions over the last few years, Geffen "has definitely been more of a seller than a buyer," said Amy Cappellazzo, international co-head of postwar and contemporary art for Christie's.
In November 2004, Geffen sold the Johns charcoal drawing "O through 9" (1961) at auction for $10.9 million -- then a record for the artist -- and reaped $3.9 million for De Kooning's "Clam Diggers" (1964). Also that year, he sold Pollock's drip painting "No. 8, 1950" to Cohen for $52 million.
In November 2005, Geffen sold Rauschenberg's "Winter Pool" (1959) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, price undisclosed.
"He has impeccable timing," Cappellazzo said, "and he's almost never wrong."