Few collectors buy art with the single-minded focus of Leslie Wexner, a Columbus, Ohio, retailing billionaire who has over the past four decades whittled his once-varied art holdings down to primarily works by a single artist: Pablo Picasso

A Mogul Shrinks His Art Focus


May 23, 2014 9:45 p.m. ET

Few collectors buy art with the single-minded focus of Leslie Wexner, a Columbus, Ohio, retailing billionaire who has over the past four decades whittled his once-varied art holdings down to primarily works by a single artist: Pablo Picasso.

Mr. Wexner, the 76-year-old founder and chief executive of L Brands, formerlyLimited BrandsLB +1.11% earned a reputation in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the country’s top collectors of Franz Kline, Mark RothkoJean Dubuffet and Willem de Kooning; he still owns de Kooning’s seminal “Pink Lady.” But at one point, Mr. Wexner had an epiphany: He said he realized that no other 20th-century artist had influenced art history to the same degree as Picasso, and as a result, Mr. Wexner began “trading out” his larger roster and collecting Picasso in-depth.

The reasons behind Mr. Wexner’s one-man metamorphosis will be explored in “Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection,” an exhibit set to open this fall, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Columbus’s Wexner Center for the Arts, named for Mr. Wexner’s father, Harry. The show, which opens Sept. 21, will include examples by a handful of other artists remaining in Mr. Wexner’s collection, including Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet and his wife Abigail’s favorite artist, Susan Rothenberg—but the bulk of the show will focus, like them, on Picasso.

Recently, Mr. Wexner agreed to discuss the winnowing. Below, an edited transcript:

“When I was a kid, I could draw reasonably well, but my mother said she would only agree to let me study art if I would also take piano, so we stalemated. I never got art lessons.

Then in the early 1970s, Alfred Taubman, the landlord for some of my stores, and I got into an argument about leases, and he invited me to Detroit to debate it out in his office. Then he invited me to have lunch at his house, and that was the first time I saw art in a private home. It never occurred to me that people lived with significant art. Al suggested I start going to galleries and museums to see what appealed to me. That was daunting.

What I responded to first was the New York School, the abstract artists of the 1940s and 1950s. The Old Masters just seemed old, but the colors and expression of the New York School were interesting to me. So during the first 10 years, I built a reasonable collection of Rothko, Kline and artists of that ilk. I bought a large Henry Moore single figure and a cubist Georges Braque. I lived with different things, René Magritte, Joan Miró. I was experimenting, but the collection felt adrift.

Then one day in the early 1980s, I went to an art fair in Chicago and saw a Picasso drawing. It was a 1920s picture of a seated woman; it was just remarkably moving and very different than the New York School and the abstract things I’d been buying. That was transformational for me because it started me in a very different way. I started looking closer at Picasso’s work. My feeling was, and still is, that when you look at Picasso, you realize that he was the true founder of modern and contemporary art. That idea intrigued me. I was also taken by how often he reinvented himself. Picasso was classically trained, but he used his imagination to shift from the representational styles of the Old Masters to something new and authentic. His bandwidth of creativity outmatched all artists who came after him. I made a conscious decision to follow him.

I still own some Giacometti, because he is a disciple of Picasso in a different form, and Jean Dubuffet as well. Once when I was in London in my 30s, I was walking down Bond Street, and there was a crowd around an art show. I went in, and the paintings were so good. The prices were $10,000 to $20,000, which was a hell of a lot of money to me back then, and a man told me they were already sold, so I didn’t get one. The artist was Francis Bacon. I had no idea who he was at the time, but I knew he was extraordinary.

Picasso still wins, though. Without Picasso, there wouldn’t have been a Bacon. I’m sure of that.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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