Cohen began collecting art in 2000, and has since become a prominent collector, appearing on Art News magazine's "Top 10" list of biggest-spending art collectors around the world each year since 2002, and Forbes magazine's "Top Billionaire Art Collectors" list in 2005. To date, Cohen has bought around $700 million worth of artwork; in 2003, the New York Times reported that in a five-year period, Cohen spent 20% of his income at art auctions.
Cohen owns between 4.7% and 5.9% of the stock of Sotheby's auction house, which has been described as a "significant stake."
He is reportedly building a private museum for some of his artwork on his Greenwich property. In the winter of 2005, it became known that in 1999 Cohen had bought Edvard Munch's Madonna. Reportedly, this was for $11.5 million.
His tastes in collecting changed quickly from Impressionist painters to contemporary art. He also collects 'trophy' art—signature works by famous artists—including a Pollock drip painting from David Geffen for $52 million and Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a piece that the artist had bought back from Charles Saatchi for $8 million. In the last two years, he reportedly paid $25 million each for a Warhol and a Picasso. He is a major patron of the Marianne Boesky art gallery.
He has purchased some unusual art works. In 2006, Cohen remarked that repairing his suspended shark artwork, a cost estimated to be a minimum of $100,000, was an "inconsequential" expense. Since the shark itself is over 10 years old, it has begun to rot and requires replacement. The replacement shark has already been caught; once the exhibit is fixed, Cohen will have it moved into his SAC office. Cohen has also placed Marc Quinn's Self, a head sculpture made of frozen blood, in the SAC lobby.
In addition, in 2006 Cohen bought a landscape entitled "Police Gazette” by artist Willem de Kooning for $63.5 million from David Geffen. Also in 2006, Cohen attempted to make the most expensive art purchase in history when he offered to purchase Picasso's Le Reve from casino mogul Steve Wynn for $139 million. Just days before the painting was to be transported to Cohen, Wynn, who suffers from poor vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, accidentally thrust his elbow through the painting while showing it to a group of acquaintances inside of his office at Wynn Las Vegas. The purchase was canceled, and Wynn still held the painting until early November, 2012, when Cohen purchased the painting for $150 million. In November 2006, Cohen purchased another Willem de Kooning painting, Woman III, from David Geffen for $137.5 million.
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