Jean-Paul Engelen knows more about Basquiat than baseball. He would rather dissect the strokes of Willem de Kooning than the strikes of Jacob deGrom, the New York Mets’ ace who paints corners, not canvas.
As deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art at the Phillips auction house, Engelen has gotten to know a great deal about hedge fund titan Steve Cohen, whom he referred to as “the LeBron of the art world.”
“He doesn’t lose,’’ Engelen said of Cohen, who is among the final three bidders in the auction for the Mets. “It’s his decision, not somebody else’s. You might have won it, but not because he lost it. He knows what things are worth.”
Cohen’s latest acquisition target may prove more difficult to appraise than, say, Le Rêve, the Picasso painting he bought from Steve Wynn for $155 million in 2013.
The 64-year-old Cohen has invested emotional capital, and millions of dollars, in the Mets, the team he grew up rooting for as a kid in Great Neck on Long Island. He already owns an 8% stake in the franchise known for surnames like Seaver, Koosman, Strawberry and Piazza. Now he wants it all.
Standing in his way are two worthy adversaries. One is Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris, who already has stakes in NBA, NHL and English Premier League teams. The other is a group fronted by former big-league MVP Alex Rodriguez and global icon and entertainer Jennifer Lopez, whose backers include the billionaire owner of an NHL club.
According to people in the art world, when Cohen bids at auction, or buys privately, he is essentially playing poker. He knows the numbers on comparable works, relying on his advisor’s deep research, and then he approaches the sale by making sure he knows who the other bidders or buyers might be. He plays the other player, not the statistics.
“He holds his cards close to his vest,” said Engelen, the only art world figure who would discuss Cohen on the record. “You don’t sell anything to Steve Cohen. He buys from you.”
It helps, of course, that Cohen often has more money to spend. His net worth is about $14 billion, far exceeding the others seeking the Mets.
Final bids on the Mets are due Aug. 31, a deadline set by Allen & Co., the investment bank overseeing the sale process. Preliminary bids came in at about $2 billion.
Cohen in December was in talks to buy up to 80% of the team at a $2.6 billion valuation. Talks collapsed over a difference of opinion over when Cohen would assume control from the Katz and Wilpon families.
“We’re talking about a serious guy here,” Engelen said. “He’s the smartest. It’s as simple as that.”
–With assistance from Marion Maneker, president and editorial director at ART Media, our sister publication at Penske Media.