Meet Leon: a charismatic, cartoon-like character that chuckles in the most adorable manner after almost every sentence (when talking about art, of course). Leon probably enjoys long walks on the beach, crab cakes are his favorite finger food, and he will never say no to a Knicks game (assumingly, given that he’s a New Yorker). But oh, did I forget to mention that Leon is also the anonymous phone bidder who bought Munch’s $120 million The Scream (the record price paid at auction for a work of art) last May and is currently #113 in Forbes 400 List with a net worth of $3.5 billion? So let’s start again. Meet Leon Black: philanthropist, art collector, co-founder, CEO and director of Apollo Global Management. Moreover he’s on the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMa. What is truly amazing about Leon Black is not his brightest-tool-in-the-shed quality, his educational background (Dartmouth ’73, Harvard ’75) or his CV; it’s his innate passion for art.
A cynic might argue that Leon Black is just another mindless billionaire art collector that might buy art for its social and commercial value; but you see, Leon is no such man. His passion for art was embedded during his bell-bottom wearing, long side-burn-grooming, hippie loving, make-love-not-war years at Dartmouth while studying his BA in Philosophy, and by his mother who was an artist. From then on, parallel to his fast life on the finance lane, Leon began assembling his art collection along with his wife Debra that is mostly made up of works on paper.
Now knowing a little bit more about Leon Black than you did two paragraphs ago, it’s an understatement on my part to mention that his collection isn’t made up of just any works on paper. In 2009 he bought a charcoal drawing by Raphael called “Head of a Muse” – a study for one of the figures in his Stanza della Segnatura fresco in the Vatican – for £29.2 million at the December Old Master evening sale in Christie’s London. This sale set the record for most expensive drawing bought at auction and a record price for the artist. Possibly preemptively paving the way for his record-setting tradition, Leon reportedly paid in 2005 a record $27 million at the time for Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” (a personal favorite of mine). Other artists in his extensive $750 million collection include Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh and J.M.W. Turner.
Leon’s passion for art is not just evident in his collection but through his philanthropic gestures. In March he donated $48 million to Dartmouth’s new visual arts center where a sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly commissioned for building stands in the center. In an interview conducted by Forbes about his donation, lovable Leon commented, “…[arts and culture] is what distinguishes us from other species… Especially in the world today where science rightfully is so important in terms of technology, innovation, telecom, internet, fighting diseases, I think it’s equally important that poetry and painting have their share of support.” Of course his philanthropic gist doesn’t end there. It includes but is not limited to $40 million donated to the Melanoma Research Alliance, funding of a stem cell research program in New York and probably eventually finding a solution to world hunger.
Evidently, Munch’s pastel-on-cardboard Scream, one of four versions and the only one to be in the United States, has found a worthy owner. Its been said that Leon is intrigued by it “because it is a precursor of 20th century Expressionism”. Being the bright man that he is, Leon knows that this is the type of blue chip work that will never be on the market again as its three brothers all belong to different museums and collections in Norway. Arguably, he might just have ‘saved’ it for his country and now the MoMa is the one that is really celebrating the purchase of the iconic work as it is now on view behind a plexiglas box (Mona Lisa style) through to April 29, 2013. Will the MET be just as lucky? Only time will tell. For now, watch out for those anonymous bidders that surface during auction week because if it’s not Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani scooping up the star works, it might just be our dear Leon Black once again.
(To read more about “The Scream” sale, please click here http://wp.me/p2dud9-4c )