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Legal Bills Rising, Cohen Is Said to Plan Art Sales

Peter Lattman and Carol Vogel
Monday, 14 Oct 2013 | 11:04 AM ET
Steve Cohen 'pruning' art
Monday, 14 Oct 2013 | 1:48 PM ET
According to The New York Times, Steve Cohen is selling at least 3 important paintings, including a famous Warhol that could fetch more than $20 million. CNBC's Robert Frank has the details.

In recent months, as his legal troubles have deepened, the billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen has sold stocks to meet withdrawal requests from skittish investors.

Now, in addition to stocks, Mr. Cohen is selling significant works of art from his celebrated collection.

Steven A. Cohen
Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Steven A. Cohen

Mr. Cohen has put two major paintings by Andy Warhol and an abstract canvas by Gerhard Richter up for sale, according to art experts familiar with his holdings who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Sotheby's will auction the works at next month's contemporary art auction in New York.

(Read more: Loeb on Sotheby's 'poison pill': He wants action)

The two Warhols, both painted in 1963, are "Liz #1 (early Colored Liz)," an image of Elizabeth Taylor on a bright yellow background estimated to sell for $20 million to $30 million, and "5 Deaths on Turquoise (Turquoise Disaster)," thought to bring in $7 million to $10 million. Sotheby's featured the Warhols last week at the Katara Art Center in Doha, Qatar, where it was showing upcoming highlights from next month's event.

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People familiar with Mr. Cohen's collection said that these paintings were part of a larger group of his works being put up for auction.

Mr. Cohen has hundreds of works in his prodigious collection and, in keeping with his trader's mentality, buys and sells them with frequency. Owners of fine art also often sell art for tax reasons, as they can defer their tax liability by exchanging one piece for another.

Still, the dispositions come as Mr. Cohen faces mounting legal bills and record penalties that he might be forced to pay as part of a settlement related to criminal insider trading charges brought against his fund, SAC Capital Advisors. The government has offered the fund a deal to resolve the case by pleading guilty and paying a penalty of nearly $2 billion. Mr. Cohen's lawyers are in the midst of negotiating a possible plea deal with prosecutors, though the two sides have yet to reach an agreement.

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Because Mr. Cohen owns 100 percent of his firm, any fine paid by SAC would effectively come out of Mr. Cohen's pocket. SAC has already agreed to pay $616 million to settle two civil insider-trading actions brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Two former SAC portfolio managers, Michael S. Steinberg and Mathew Martoma, are facing criminal trials on insider trading charges.

Mr. Steinberg's trial is scheduled for Nov. 18; the government has accused him of illegal trading in the technology stocks Dell and Nvidia. In January, prosecutors will try Mr. Martoma on charges that he obtained secret results of drug trials and helped SAC generate gains and avoid losses of $276 million by trading on that information.

Mr. Steinberg and Mr. Martoma are two of 11 former SAC employees who have been tied to insider trading while at the hedge fund; six of them have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. In July, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, cited the large number of guilty pleas by former SAC employees when he announced the firm's indictment of SAC.

(Read more: Cohen's SAC, prosecutors find settlement elusive)

Despite SAC's astounding investment track record — and solid returns this year — virtually all outside investors have asked for their money back from the fund, whose assets under management stood at $15 billion at the beginning of the year. Once all of the outside investor money is returned, a process that will take several months, SAC will be left managing Mr. Cohen's fortune, estimated at about $9 billion.

A renowned collector, Mr. Cohen continues to be an influential figure on the international art scene as he wages battle with government authorities. Last November, just days before the case against SAC took a more serious turn when Mr. Martoma was arrested, Mr. Cohen bought Picasso's "Le Rêve" from the casino owner Stephen A. Wynn for $150 million.

Also in 2012, he is said to have paid about $120 million for four Matisse bronze sculptures of a woman's back. Mr. Cohen owns works as varied as a Jasper Johns "Flag" painting and Damien Hirst's shark submerged in a tank of formaldehyde and a Claude Monet Impressionist painting. The Warhols and the Richter canvas certainly would not be his first prominent sales.

(Read more: Christie's sells $25 million of goods in its first China auction)

Last year, he put an abstract painting by Richter on the market, though it failed to find a buyer. And in 2010, he sold Edouard Manet's "Self-Portrait With a Palette" for about $29.5 million after owning it for nearly a decade.

—By Peter Lattman and Carol Vogel for the New York Times