Troubled Malaysian Investor Jho Low Sells Off Masterpieces Amid International Investigation
Steeply discounted artworks point to need for cash.
Malaysian businessman and former world-renowned art collector Jho Low is getting rid of a number of artworks, including major Jean-Michel Basquiat and Claude Monet paintings, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation is “actively examining his financial dealings in the US and abroad,” according to a lengthy report in the Wall Street Journal.
Up until last week, Diamond Dust Heads (1982), a painting of two drug addicts, held the record for the most expensive Basquiat work ever sold at auction. Low was the eventual buyer who helped propel the price to $48.8 million at Christie’s in May 2013, where it jumped past the $25–35 million estimate.
But, in a sign of how dire his financial situation has become, according to the report, Low sold Dustheads last month to Connecticut hedge fund manager Daniel Sundheim, in a private deal brokered by Sotheby’s, for $35 million, a steep 28 percent drop from what Low paid just over three years ago.
This move comes at a time when the Basquiat market is hotter than ever. Just last week, the artist’s Untitled (1982) canvas set a new record of $57.3 million at Christie’s “Bound to Fail” sale, which also set new auction records for Maurizio Cattelan, Paola Pivi, Neil Jenney, Rebecca Horn, and Daniel Buren, among others.
Sotheby’s declined to comment; although the auction house did not confirm it, artworks consigned by Low to the major London sales on February 3 and 10 were sold at a steep loss. They were reportedly pledged as collateral for a loan of about $100 million from Sotheby’s Financial Services, according to Bloomberg. The three works roughly fetched $53 million, based on artnet’s conversions.
These included Picasso’s Tete de Femme (1935), which was estimated at $23–28.8 million and sold for $27 million. Provenance records show it had been previously sold in November 2013 at Sotheby’s New York for just under $40 million, according to the artnet Price Database. (Prices have been converted to USD from British pounds.)
Meanwhile, Low was also reported to be the consignor of Claude Monet’s Le Palais Ducal vu de Saint-Georges Majeur (1908), for $16.6 million, which missed the low estimate of $17.2 million, even including the hefty premiums. (The original transaction price is not public, since it was acquired in 1998 from a Swiss private collection.)
The third work Low consigned to the contemporary London sale (February 10) was another Basquiat, this one a 1982 oilstick drawing Untitled (Head of Madman), which sold for $8.9 million. When it was previously sold at auction in November 2013, it fetched $12 million on an estimate of $7–9 million, the artnet Price Database shows.
Christie’s provided artnet News with the following statement:
“Christie’s takes compliance with anti-money laundering legislation (AML) very seriously and we have a rigorous AML compliance program in all countries where we operate, managed by a dedicated Compliance Team. While we will not comment on a particular situation or client, our dedicated compliance team follows the same established protocols and procedures as major banking institutions to ensure total adherence with the law.”
The FBI had not responded to artnet News’ request for comment as of publication time.
According to the WSJ report, investigators believe that at least some of the money Low used to buy his art—his collection had at one point been estimated at upwards of $300 million—came from a Malaysian fund he set up seven years ago, known as 1Malaysia Development Bhd or 1MDB. The fund was set up in conjunction with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. There are reportedly at least six investigations ongoing around the world into transactions that are related to 1MDB.
In the past five months, Low has reportedly sold at least $205 million worth of art, including the Basquiat, the Picasso and the Monet.
Low reportedly has also been unloading real estate, having agreed to sell his stake in the Park Lane Hotel, which overlooks Central Park, for an undisclosed price.
Investigators are tracking more than $6 billion believed to have been funneled out of 1MDB in a six-year period between 2009 and 2016. In 2009, at least $500 million that originated with 1MDB was placed in a bank account controlled by Low. The money was later transferred to other accounts, as well as to members of Low’s family, the report states, citing people familiar with the matter.
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