Pollock's 'No. 5, 1948' commands record price for a painting

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The Independent US

When Jackson Pollock, the troubled and alcoholic American painter, dribbled paint on to a bare board laid on the floor of his Long Island studio nearly 60 years ago, he may or may not have wondered what kind of money might one day be paid for it. If he did, he surely never would have dreamed in millions.

Now we know that the natural insecurity of the artist was gravely, even naïvely, misplaced. Fast forward to yesterday when news emerged that one of the largest paintings Pollock completed - unromantically entitled No. 5, 1948 - has quietly changed hands for no less a sum than $140m (£73.35m).

The person alleged to have offloaded the picture, which measures 4ft by 8ft (1.2 by 2.4m), is David Geffen, a Los Angeles entertainment tycoon. Meanwhile, the price he charged - if the transaction is confirmed - would make it the most money ever paid for a painting, exceeding the $134m paid recently by the cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for Gustav Klimt's shimmering Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

While the public was able to view the Klimt painting, which Lauder bought to hang in his own, public, Neue Galerie on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue opposite the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is most unlikely that any of us will be given equal access to the large Pollock.

The buyer, according to The New York Times, was David Martinez, a Mexican best known for keeping his private affairs, and presumably private possessions also, all to himself.

We do know, however, that Mr Martinez, 48, the founder of London-based Fintech Advisory Ltd, a financial house that specialises in buying Third World debt and which has a New York branch, has long been an avid art collector. Most of it ends up on the walls of the super-luxury apartment he bought in Manhattan's soaring Time Warner Centre for $54.7m two years ago.

Guests at Mr Martinez's apartment, on the 76th floor of one of the centre's blue-glassed towers, which he bought as a raw space when they were completed on Columbus Circle, will at first be struck by the 360-degree views over Manhattan and Central Park. Then, however, their eyes will surely settle on the art collection, which already includes works by Rothko and De Kooning, among others. But with 12,000 square feet of floor space, he presumably has free walls for his new Pollock too.

What the reclusive Mr Martinez seems to have acquired this week is a classic among Pollock's drip paintings, a thicket of yellow, white, maroon and black squiggles chaotically unleashed on to a sheet of fibreboard. Scholars of Pollock, who died in 1956 in a car crash, acknowledge the continuity of his drip-painting theme, but point to a wild diversity in his work also, with surfaces that ranged from powdery, to glass-smooth and encrusted.

Pollock's golden period came in 1950, just six years before he died at the wheel, tragically young at just 44 years old. In that single year, he gave the world works that included Autumn Rhythm, No. 32 and One, all three of which transport the viewer with his sublime loops of unrestrained energy.

Mr Geffen meanwhile seems to be engaged in something of a selling spree, adding to speculation that he may be manoeuvring to buy the Los Angeles Times newspaper, for which he may need new sources of cash. He is said to have sold two other paintings from his collection in the past month alone - a Jasper Johns and a De Kooning - for a total of $145.3m.

The Pollock sale comes, meanwhile, as the New York art scene is holding its breath for an autumn auction season that promises some extra excitement - and maybe more record prices - of its own. Among works scheduled for sale in the next two weeks is a Picasso belonging to Lord Lloyd-Webber and a Gauguin painting, Man with an Ax. Also begging for buyers is an Andy Warhol self-portrait.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's, the auction houses which perennially vie for the most glamorous and most lucrative of art auctions, are reporting unusually high levels of interest in this year's auctions, another sign that buyers for ultra-expensive art are in historically high supply. Christie's has already arranged for an overflow room to its main 750-seat sales room to accommodate all the expected bidders.

But for now, it appears the record for the priciest picture ever sold is Mr Geffen's.

It would have been held, until now, not by Mr Lauder but by the Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, who in October was set to sell a Picasso portrait to the financier Stephen Cohen for $139m. That deal famously fell through when Mr Wynn accidentally put his elbow through the canvas while showing it to friends.

Top sellers

£70m ($135m) - Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, June 2006

£58m ($104m) - Garçon à la Pipe by Pablo Picasso, May 2004

£51.5m ($95m) - Dora Maar au Chat by Pablo Picasso, March 2006

£47.1m ($82.5m) - Portrait du Dr Gachet by Vincent van Gogh, May 1990

£44.5m ($78m) - Au Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, May 1990

£43.8m ($76.7m) - The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens, July 2002

£37.1m ($65m) - Portrait de l'Artiste Sans Barbe by Vincent van Gogh, November 1998

£31.4m ($55m) - Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier by Paul Cézanne, May 1999

£28m ($51.67m) - Les Noces de Pierrette by Pablo Picasso, November 1989