Why Robert Mnuchin (Yes, Steven's Father) Made Jeff Koons the World's Most Expensive Living Artist This Week?

Dan Duray
Photo credit: CHRISTIE'S - Getty Images

From ELLE Decor

This week, Jeff Koons's stainless steel sculpture "Rabbit" (1986) made headlines across the world when it was sold to Robert Mnuchin for $91.1 million at Christie's, making it the most expensive work by a living artist ever to have sold at auction.

News that Koons had unseated David Hockney as the world's most expensive artist likely inspired in you a wide array of emotions that may have included "Wait, Mnuchin, as in Steven Mnuchin?" Yes. Robert Mnuchin is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's father and this fact is not exactly a coincidence.

One of the wonderful (and terrible!) things about the art world is the way that, like the better parties in Proust, it's a nexus for the most influential people from a variety of disciplines. ("Rabbit," after all, came to Christie's from the estate of magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse Jr., who bought it from the artist Terry Winters through Larry Gagosian.) And then they all get together and make decisions that you read about in the newspaper.

To understand a little more about who Robert Mnuchin is will help you make sense of the price he paid for that bunny-and, indeed, and the art world itself.

Photo credit: Patrick McMullan - Getty Images

See, Robert Mnuchin came to the art world after retiring from Goldman Sachs in 1990 at age 57. At Goldman, he'd earned the nickname "Coach" for his hands-on management style and pioneered the kinds of deals that we now know as block trading-appropriate enough for someone whose son would go on to make his money in mortgage-backed securities.

During his time at Goldman, he started collecting art, names like Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Clyfford Still. Though these artists are all legendary, his collecting largely started because a dealer who showed these artists, Xavier Fourcade, happened to live four blocks away from Mnuchin's townhouse at 45 East 78th Street. Fourcade would tell Mnuchin to stop in after work for a scotch, and to see the new works.

"I’m really a collector at heart, who happens to be a dealer," Mnuchin told me in 2015. "I feel that every dealer should be that way."

After retirement, Mnuchin and his wife tried their hand at running the Mayflower Inn in Washington, Connecticut, but it was a decidedly slower pace for the Coach. By 1992 he was dealing art out of the townhouse, which still houses the gallery today. The gallery has operated under various names in partnerships with the major art world players James Corcoran (C&M Arts) and Dominique Lévy (L&M Arts).

Photo credit: Patrick McMullan - Getty Images

Not that it's been all about wheeling and dealing. Mnuchin happens to do celebrated shows with David Hammons, who is perhaps America's greatest living artist.

All this is to say that this purchase wasn't entirely out of character for Mnuchin, and if anybody can put together such a large sum of money for a Jeff Koons, it's him. In fact, he bought a Rothko for $75 million in 2012, which adjusted for inflation, is actually more than $91.1 million. Mnuchin said that he purchased that Rothko for someone else and it's likely that he bought the Koons on behalf of someone else as well.

Art dealing is fun but it's also a margins business: it's rare for someone to take on such a high cost alone in the hopes of selling it for more down the line. Sometimes at lower prices dealers will bid on an artist they don't represent as a way of flirtation, but at a high level this would be like committing to marriage on the first date. All we really know about this particular purchase is that it's sure to have made Jeff Koons extremely happy. And in the end, isn't that enough?

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