First Round: Leon Black's Picasso problem

First Round is secretly a bit of a culture vulture. It’s not all cash and cars you know. So when it was strolling through New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) perusing the Picasso sculpture exhibition this winter, its eye was grabbed by a sumptuous work called Bust of a Woman. This 1931 masterpiece depicting the great man’s model and mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter really was a showstopper.

As First Round wondered if Marie-Thérèse’s nose really looked like that, several other people also paused, arrested by its abstract beauty. As some point, so must have Leon Black, chairman and CEO of Apollo Global Management and co-chairman of MOMA’s board.

Black was revealed last month as the mysterious buyer of the sculpture which has landed him slap bang in the centre of an ownership row between art royalty the Picasso family and gallery owner Larry Gagosian, and real royalty, the Qatari ruling family who claim to have already purchased the artwork.

Black had offered to buy the piece from the Picasso family through Gagosian for an eyewatering $106 million. That’s almost half the value of Apollo’s $250 million share buy-back programme announced in February.

The Qataris maintain they had already bought the work for almost $50 million in 2014, a new “record-high price” for comparable sculptures, according to a counter claim filed in the US district court in Southern New York in early February.

The claim describes Black as “a highly sophisticated art collector who has access to and works with some of the best art professionals in the world. This sale was no exception. As with Gagosian, the onus was on Black to conduct reasonable due diligence to assess the provenance of the sculpture”.

Suggesting one’s due diligence was flimsy is akin to fighting words for a private equity baron.

A court date has been set for a hearing, at which Gagosian and Picasso’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso, are due to answer questions. Interestingly, it’s been set for April Fools’ Day. But this art dispute is no joke.