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A collector accidentally damages his Picasso - and its value

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - You can elbow your friends and you can elbow macaroni, but watch out when you elbow a Picasso. It can cost you millions.

Just ask casino mogul and high-dollar art collector Steve Wynn. He was showing off a Picasso masterpiece at his office in the Wynn Las Vegas hotel. He was about to close a deal to sell it for $139 million, when his errant arm gesture tore a hole in the canvas.

Wynn had paid $48.4 million for "La Reve" ("The Dream"), a saucy portrait of Picasso's mistress, nearly 10 years ago. Now the sale to mega-collector and New York hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen is off.

Word of the fiasco spread this week, proving that not everything that happens in Vegas stays there. Tough to do when your witnesses include the writer Nora Ephron (who on Monday posted a blog account) and Barbara Walters.

According to the buzz, including a story in this week's New Yorker, Wynn decided to hold onto the 1932 painting and is having it repaired by an art restorer in New York.

Wynn has an eye condition that limits his peripheral vision and reportedly was relieved that it was he who damaged the work rather than someone else.

So what's the prognosis?

"Any damage will affect a picture's value," said Ian Kennedy, curator of European art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., "but it slightly depends on the type of damage.

"Years ago someone threw acid on a painting in the Kassel Museum in Germany - a Rembrandt of Danae - and someone else threw acid on the Durer Pirckheimer altarpiece in the Alte Pinakotek in Munich. Since this affected the surface it is more damaging than a simple tear, which is easier to fix."

Scott Heffley, conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins, deals with damaged paintings all the time.

"It's a tear, and the tear can be put back together and mended from the back," he said. "Most likely there wasn't much paint loss, because the paint would remain clinging to the canvas.

"Aesthetically, once it's fit back together, and mended from the back, you wouldn't know anything took place from the front, unless you were an expert or you examined it with a black light."

The effect on the work's value is more difficult to assess.

"If the piece was pristine before, that has a certain value level," Heffley said. "Now it has damage that will drop it below that level.

"If you're talking about an Old Master painting, damage like this, with very little paint loss, probably wouldn't affect the value as much, because when a painting is of that age - 1700s, 1600s - you expect things like this to have happened. If it's major - a hole in the face of the sitter, paint loss - it would affect the value.

"This is a modern work so it would have bigger effect on the value. If it was a contemporary work, say from the 1990s, it would have an even bigger effect on the value, because you don't expect it to have any damage.

"If you've got an absolute masterpiece, and the damage can be repaired effectively, it may not affect the value that much, because it's still an incredible masterpiece."

If Wynn had successfully closed the Picasso deal, he would have established a record sale price for a piece of art. Just four months ago New York collector Ronald Lauder paid $135 million for an early 20th century Austrian painting by Gustav Klimt.

In an increasingly feverish top-dollar art market, Wynn may have concluded that, if he couldn't set a record, he could make a splash anyway without letting the damaged dreamer go.


(c) 2006, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.

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