Planting a Johns ‘Flag’ in a Private Collection

by Carol Vogel

Published in NY Times March 18, 2010

Less than two months before Christie’s will be selling one of Jasper Johns’s signature “Flag” paintings, the hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen privately scooped up a larger and earlier example of that artist’s seminal image. He bought it from Jean-Christophe Castelli, son of Leo Castelli, Mr. Johns’s legendary dealer. The younger Mr. Castelli inherited the painting from his father, who died in 1999.

“I can confirm that Steve Cohen bought the ‘Flag’ painting,” said Sandy Heller, Mr. Cohen’s art adviser. Thomas C. Danziger, Mr. Castelli’s lawyer, also confirmed the sale, adding that the terms of the deal were “strictly confidential.”

While no one will discuss the price, art experts who have heard details of the transaction say Mr. Cohen paid about $110 million.

The painting was executed in 1958 and was so coveted by the dealer that he never sold it. It hung in his Manhattan home until his death. For years before the sale, the younger Mr. Castelli lent the work to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it was on view.

“It’s beautifully rendered,” said Brett Gorvy, a co-head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department and deputy chairman of Christie’s in America. Alongside other masterpieces that Mr. Cohen has purchased over the years — including Willem de Kooning’s “Woman III,” a 1952-53 canvas that he bought in 2006 from the entertainment mogul David Geffen, for roughly $137.5 million, and Andy Warhol’s 1964 “Turquoise Marilyn,” bought from the Chicago collector Stefan Edlis for around $80 million in 2007 — he now has what Mr. Gorvy described as “the most comprehensive collection of American postwar images in private hands.”

While the “Flag” that Christie’s is selling also comes with a pristine provenance — it had been owned by the writer Michael Crichton, who bought it directly from Mr. Johns in 1974 — it is half the size of the one Mr. Cohen bought. “This transaction propels the Crichton painting to a higher level,” Mr. Gorvy said, adding that the only other important “Flag” in private hands is owned by Mr. Geffen. The Cohen sale “only adds to its rarity.”