Rotting Damien Hirst Shark, 33 Jeff Koonses and Other Art Financial Villains Love

June 5, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

In the most recent issue of The Baffler, Rhonda Lieberman published an extensive piece on the art collectors of the “new Gilded Age.” Almost everyone Lieberman mentions is both obscenely wealthy and exploitative. One of them is Bernie Madoff, whose office art included a four foot screw so expensive that Madoff’s lawyer didn’t want it disclosed in his court case. After Madoff’s scandal and subsequent demise, his business partner J. Ezra Merkin promptly sold his collection of Rothkos for $310 million.

These billionaires have been buying so much art that they literally don’t have enough room for it, and so “egoseums,” as Lieberman puts it, have been popping up around the country. One of these belongs to Walmart heir Alice Walton, whose museum will ironically “celebrate the American spirit” that her company has so effectively crushed.

Some of the more absurd stories come via Steven Cohen, a hedge fund manager.

…Cohen breaks spending records for splashy pieces: in 2004 he doled out $8 million for Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—a thirteen-foot shark encased in formaldehyde. (The beast at the center of the installation reportedly later rotted and had to be replaced.)

Less than two weeks after Cohen’s hedge fund agreed to pay the government $616 million to settle accusations of insider trading, this tireless exemplar of the Veblenesque meritorious consumer snagged Picasso’s Le Rêve for $155 million (from rival hoarder Steve Wynn). A dream come true, all around, for the apostles of honorific exploit.

Finally, we explore the riches of Eli Broad, an LA-based billionaire who was involved with companies like AIG,which helped to incite the 2008 financial crisis. Broad is still unfathomably wealthy, but that doesn’t keep him from cutting corners:

One example of Broad’s ingenuity: he paid $7.7. million for the land where his ego-seum is sited—and because of a deal he struck with a city agency, he will receive a rebate on his construction costs that may exceed $10 million. As Bruck sums up: “In art as in business Eli found ingenious ways to pay less.”

But Broad is willing to shell out for some things. His favorite artists is, of course, the most billionaire friendly of them all, Jeff Koons. Broad reportedly owns 33 of Koon’s works.