Elbow Meets Picasso: Who Pays?

Elbow Meets Picasso: Who Pays?

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

On September 30, 2006, casino king Steve Wynn was showing off his $139 million Picasso painting to friends like Barbara Walters, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and Ephron's husband Nick Pileggi. In what Wynn has called "the world's clumsiest and goofiest things to do," he created a quarter-sized flap in the painting when his elbow inadvertently pierced the 74-year-old canvas. Wynn has a disorder that affects his peripheral vision, so he didn't realize he had gotten so close to the masterpiece.

Wynn could probably add "most expensive" to the list of adjectives describing his arm's misfire, as he now alleges that the painting dropped in value by $54 million and is suing his insurer, Lloyd's of London for not responding properly to his claim. Before the damage, Wynn had negotiated a deal to sell the painting for $139 million to hedge fund giant Steven Cohen, which would've been the highest price paid for a piece of art, but that fell apart, and now the painting is worth a mere $89 million.

The painting in question is Picasso's 1932 "Le Rêve," a depiction of his mistress Marie-Thérêse Walter. Wynn bought it in 2001 for an undisclosed amount, but he says he paid considerably more than the $48.4 million an anonymous buyer had paid in 1997.

The incident originally made news after Wynn had asked his guests to keep the hole under wraps, but word leaked out and led to a "Whospilledit?" mystery in the press. The New Yorker reported the news first, with Ephron writing her own piece for the Hufffington Post; Ephron said she thought the incident was fair game after the New Yorker article.

Now, after spending $21,000 on consulting fees and putting another $90,000 worth of restoration into the painting, "Le Rêve" is almost like new, but it is still flawed under black light, says Wynn. Lloyd's has already agreed to reimburse Wynn for those costs as well as for the extra security required during restoration, but Wynn wants the U.S. District Court in Manhattan to order Lloyd's to deliver an appraisal report or an initial damages assessment in order to speed up the process.

Indeed, Wynn has gone on the offensive against the entire insurance industry, which he said, regularly participates in "irresponsible, careless, inconsiderate, and deliberate evasive behavior." The multi-millionaire art collector has aligned himself with the common folk, commenting that "[m]ost folks that have insurance can't afford the legal fees, so they take what they get. . . . There's only one way to stop this kind of thing, and that is to go to court."

And go to court is just what they may do. Before the lawsuit was filed, Lloyd's sent Wynn a letter stating that normal practice is that an insured makes a claim and the insurers either agree to pay or not. Now, post-lawsuit, Lloyd's has expressed an interest in negotiating the price to be paid, but Wynn called their first offer "ridiculous."

Now it would seem that the only questions that remain are who will pay for the accidental elbow and how much.