How the 1MBD Scandal Ensnared the Art World

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“Just wanted to bring you up to speed on the big loan opportunity.…[The borrower] doesn’t want us to use his name in our communications, he wants to be referred to as ‘the client’ and we will refer to this transaction as project Cheetah (referring to the speed at which we are trying to move).”

Four days later, Low emailed the same executive, emphasizing the confidentiality in one email—“Most imp is that client name or if bvi borrower (then guarantor name) does not show up in any public searchable document or public accesible [sic] doc,” Low wrote. In another email, he emphasized the speed with which he needed the $107 million, saying the the funds should be dispersed by April 7th—just two weeks.

They were a few days late. Low secured a deal with Sotheby’s on April 10th, through which he would leverage 17 works held in the Geneva Free Port, valued at somewhere between $191.6 million and $258.3 million, for a $107 million loan. The loan was to be deposited in an account at the Caledonian Bank in the Cayman Islands listed as Triple Eight, Ltd.—an entity fully owned by Low.

The sum helped fund the art Low purchased in 2014 and 2015, including the $57.5 million Monet. According to Tom Wright and Bradley Hope’s 2018 book Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World, the loan also almost funded the purchase of Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) (1955), which at the time was the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. Low was purportedly the underbidder.

According to Wright and Hope, Low bragged to friends about his near-miss, saying that his final bid on the Picasso was for $170 million. If that’s true, he would have been on the phone with his previous auction world go-between—and DiCaprio’s longtime pal—Loïc Gouzer, who was the only specialist battling against Brett Gorvy on the lot as it nosed toward its final price. Gouzer did indeed offer a bid of $159.5 million—more than $170 million with fees, but in the ballpark—but Gorvy took it up to $160 million on behalf of his client, reportedly the former Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and the work hammered there, for a total of $179.3 million.

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