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Well blow me down! Steve Wynn pays $28M for Popeye

Steve Wynn was strong to the finish and laid out the spinach, snapping a Jeff Koons sculpture of Popeye for $28 million.

The billionaire casino tycoon and art collector won the spirited bidding Wednesday night at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction. The piece was one of three made by Koons, a master of oversized, shiny sculptures of balloon dogs, toy trains and tulips.

Wynn plans to install Popeye and his can of spinach at his casino in Las Vegas, according to Sotheby's.

Photo credit: Sotheby's

Reasonable people might ask why anyone would pay $28 million for a 2,000-pound Popeye.

Koons is the main reason. His orange "Balloon Dog" became the most expensive work sold by a living artist when it was auctioned for $58 million at Christie's last fall.

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Scarcity is another. Koons made only three versions of the 6½-foot tall muscle man. Megadealer Larry Gagosian owns one and hedge funder Steve Cohen owns the other.

But it turns out, Popeye also has a special place in pop art.

"Popeye represents the beginning and the end of pop art," said Alexander Rotter, co-head of contemporary art at Sotheby's. He points out that one of the first paintings by Andy Warhol was of Popeye and Roy Lichtenstein did a famous Popeye piece.

For Koons, Popeye was a boyhood hero. "There was something about the little guy that becomes giant," Rotter said.

Based on his prices, Koons has certainly followed Popeye's example.

—By CNBC's Robert Frank.

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