A Divorced Billionaire Just Realized the Picasso Painting His Wife Left Him Is Fake


W magazine

A Divorced Billionaire Just Realized the Picasso Painting His Wife Left Him Is Fake

Pablo Picasso, Le Repos, 1932, a highlight of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale.
Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Divorce has a way of getting messy—especially for Wall Street billionaires so blasé about their multimillion-dollar assets that they can divide them up by simply flipping a coin. That was the tactic Sue Gross and her Wall Street investor husband, Bill Gross, whom Forbes reports has a net worth of $2.5 billion, turned to last summer to decide who would get to hold on to a Picasso painting that had previously hung in their bedroom. Sue won the coin flip for Le Repos, as the work is titled, though it turns out she’d already gone ahead on her own and taken the painting. And, according to Page Six, she’d slyly replaced it with a fake she painted herself.

The painting, which Picasso made in 1932, features Marie-Thérèse Walter, a 17-year-old French model whom Picasso began a relationship with when he was 45 and still living with his first wife, Olga Khokhlova, and their five-year-old son. Picasso’s affair with Walter started in 1930. In 1935, when Khokhlova found out about the relationship, Walter was living in an apartment near the family. In 1936, Walter had a daughter with Picasso, whom she brought along when she moved into a 17th-century château in Normandy. (Oh, and she also reportedly fought the photographer Dora Maar, another of Picasso’s models whom he’d fallen in love with, in front of his famed painting Guernica.)

Of course, there’s more to Le Repos than its fitting backstory of marital turmoil; it comes from a period when Picasso was working with vivid color as well as eroticism. Le Repos features thick black lines outlining the profile and hands of Walter, whose skin is a ghostly mix of violets and white, against a green and red backdrop. Conveniently enough for Sue Gross, the swaths of bright color and bold outlines are far easier to copy than, say, painstaking chiaroscuro.

What brought this particularly entertaining bit of Gross divorce sabotage to light is that Le Repos will be a highlight of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale in New York on Monday, where it’s reportedly expected to sell for as much as $35 million. Somehow, the original has managed to make its way to the storied auction house after all the drama last year, which began when Bill tried to transfer the work to Sue from his home in Laguna Beach, and she told him it was “unnecessary.” Once it was learned that, as a source put it, “she stole the damn thing,” things then unsurprisingly took a legal turn.

Sue Gross’s admission during a testimony in November is a bit less brazen when you consider that she also presented an email from Bill that instructed her to “take all the furniture and art you’d like.” Still, his lawyers weren’t about to let her off the hook that easily: After clarifying with her that she hadn’t simply left an empty spot on the wall, they asked if she installed a fake, to which she responded, “Well, it was a painting I painted.” She has since agreed with his team that it was a “replication” of the Picasso, though she couldn’t recall if she’d left Picasso’s signature on it or her own.

“Bill will remember because I painted it at home years ago,” she continued, adding that she and Bill “didn’t speak for a year and a half” when his lawyers asked if she told him that she took the Picasso.

Really, the “replication” of the Picasso certainly shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Bill Gross. In fact, back in 2015, he’d told an investor that his wife, aka “the artist in the family,” “likes to paint replicas of some of the famous pieces, using an overhead projector to copy the outlines and then just sort of fill in the spaces.” Indeed, even when they were together, there was already a Picasso replica of Sue’s doing in their bedroom that Bill was well aware of, and apparently even proud of—they even hung the canvas above their bedroom’s fireplace. (According to Bill, Sue had said, “Why spend $20 million? I can paint that one for $75.”)

Meanwhile, the Picasso block might be perking up at Sotheby’s, but over at Christie’s, things are trending downward in that regard. After accidentally putting his elbow through his own $139 million Picasso painting in 2006, the businessman and art collector Steve Wynn damaged another of his Picassos, a 1943 self-portrait that was set to sell for an estimated $70 million this week but ended up being pulled from the block after sustaining damage “during the final stages of preparation.”

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