Steve Wynn Buys Rembrandt: Sotheby’s Buys from Christie’s

The casino mogul talks to the Daily Beast about his previously unclaimed masterpiece—and that time he poked a hole in a Picasso.

An employee of Christie's stands in front of a Rembrandt portrait titled 'Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo' on September 18, 2009 in London, England. (Photo: Marco Secchi / Getty Images)

Steve Wynn is known for making amazing deals for real estate, upon which he has built cash-cow resort-casinos, but these days he’s patting himself on the back over a late-era Rembrandt self-portrait he snagged for the bargain price of $33 million.

Wynn picked up the painting—which, until a recent interview with The Daily Beast he had refused to acknowledge even owning—in an auction in December in which he pulled off a bizarre art-world arrangement: Wynn had Sotheby’s bid for him in a Christie’s sale.

Click to hear Steve Wynn speak to The Daily Beast about buying a Rembrandt, and poking a hole in a Picasso

Through a series of circumstances Wynn explained to The Daily Beast, which people familiar with the deal confirmed, he ended up as the surprise lone bidder (after the reserve was met) of the 1658 Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo and won it for the minimum.

“I knew then and there that I had just made one of the best purchases of my art-collecting life,” Wynn said of the sale at a lunch interview on the terrace of the Country Club Restaurant overlooking his eponymous golf course at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Others agree, including an art dealer kicking himself for declining to bid on the masterpiece.

“Steve got a great deal, no doubt about it, and the reason he did is largely due to me,” said Otto Naumann, one of New York’s foremost dealers. “I made a mistake not bidding on that painting, plain and simple.”

For Wynn—who previously has declined to speak about the painting, telling reporters, “I’m not discussing it, I’m not acknowledging my paintings anymore”—it was a chance to redeem himself after becoming a goat in the art world for accidentally puncturing one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous works, Le Reve, in 2006. He went about the winter purchase in utter secrecy, having asked Rembrandt Research Project Director Ernst van de Wetering in Amsterdam last fall about the painting when it first was announced for sale. At the time, van de Wetering told Wynn it was “an unquestioned masterpiece,” Wynn recalled, and encouraged the Vegas mogul to buy it because late-era Rembrandts rarely come to market.

Wynn insisted he was in the throes of an expensive divorce and couldn’t consider spending the money, but in actuality he was smitten with the idea. He then chatted up Sotheby’s co-chairman of Old Master Paintings, George Gordon, who informed Wynn that he had heard that two of the world’s top collectors refused to bid on the painting because the owner, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, J. Seward Johnson’s widow, refused to allow them to have it shipped to their homes for trial—a customary gesture in art sales of this magnitude.

Naumann confirmed this was the case for at least one collector he knew, but Naumann himself refrained from bidding out of concern over the painting’s condition. Portrait of a Man With Arms Akimbo had two coats of varnish and a troubled history, having been painted over about 100 years after Rembrandt’s death, said Bruce Duncan, an old masters dealer in Chicago. It had been rediscovered later, but also was badly stored for many years.

“I looked at the painting for hours, trying to imagine how the face would look after cleaning,” Naumann said. “It seemed so flat and dull and lacking any color. Under magnification, I could see only a bit of pink near the edges of cracks. I never imagined that a thin veil of pink glaze existed over the entire passage, then hidden by a yellow varnish.”

Wynn protected his identity by asking Sotheby’s to allow Gordon to bid on it on his behalf. Neither auction house would discuss the arrangement for this report, but it was, by many accounts, an unusual one.

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The prospectus indicated an estimated value of £18 million ($28 million), but bidding opened at £12 million. Wynn listened on the phone as his proxy bid that amount, only to be instantly outbid in a manner that suggested Christie’s was responding with bids intended to protect the painting from selling below the reserve. Yet when Wynn hit £18 million, there was no response; the Rembrandt was his for the equivalent of $29 million plus commissions, totaling around $33 million.

“I knew then and there that I had just made one of the best purchases of my art-collecting life.”

“And George Gordon said to me, ‘Oh my God, you’re the only bidder. You got it for the minimum,’ ” Wynn recalled.

The painting, which Wynn bought sight-unseen, was then cleaned by noted New York restoration expert Nancy Krieg. Krieg’s husband, George Goldner, the curator of Old Masters and the chairman of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, believes the piece cleaned up well.

“It’s a very, very good picture by one of the great artists,” Goldner said. “I felt more positively about it at the time of the sale than many people did. I admit when it was cleaned, I thought it looked great.”

Agreed Naumann: “It was a gamble, paying the reserve like that. But he's a lucky man. I expect he knows this by now.”

Indeed he does. The Rembrandt now hangs in Wynn’s Las Vegas office in a space previously occupied by the mended Le Reve. Wynn had a deal to sell that painting for a Picasso-record $139 million in 2006 when he accidentally poked a six-inch hole in it with his elbow while gesticulating as he showed it off at a dinner party attended by Barbara Walters, Bush vs. Gore attorney David Boies, Casino author Nicholas Pileggi and his wife Nora Ephron. Ephron broke news about the incident on the Huffington Post.

Wynn now hangs the Picasso, fixed for $90,000, in his villa at the Wynn Las Vegas, the hotel-casino he nearly named Le Reve when it opened in 2005 because he loved the painting so much. Pals Steven Spielberg, Donald Trump, Barry Diller, and Frank Luntz teamed up to persuade him to name the hotel for himself, so instead he named the resident show on the property for the picture. (Barry Diller is CEO of The Daily Beast's parent company, IAC.)

Wynn, who self-mockingly has called himself the “Inspector Clouseau of collectors” for the incident, believes that the formerly damaged painting could now be worth significantly more than the $139 million he had agreed to take before the sale to hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen was canceled on account of the damage. He says he gets offers about once a month.

Another Picasso, Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust), sold for $106.5 million in May via Christie’s, the current record. One major art-world figure told The Daily Beast on background that he believed Le Reve is now worth about $80 million because of the damage, but Duncan disagreed.

“[Wynn’s] painting is a better painting than the one that sold for $106.5 million, so what we know right now is that [ Le Reve] is worth more than $106.5 million,” Duncan said. “Assuming it was fixed by a first-rate restorer, it went back to 100 percent of its value. But the only thing we know is that it’s worth more than the last Picasso that sold for a record.”

Wynn is unconcerned for the time being, and pleased with both his Rembrandt and his Picasso.

“I really just want to enjoy my pictures,” he said. “I don’t owe any money in the world. I settled my divorce. I enjoy my paintings. I’m living an orderly life.”

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Steve Friess is a veteran Las Vegas-based freelancer whose work appears inthe New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and many others. He's a contributing writer for AOLNews, a columnist for the Las Vegas Weekly, blogs at VegasHappensHere.Com and is host of two podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal-affairs program The Petcast. He Tweets at @TheStripPodcast.