Stevie Cohen, collector of traders and art

By Felix Salmon
January 18, 2013

Gary Sernovitz, a research analyst turned novelist, has 3,500 words in n+1 about Stevie Cohen, trading, and art collecting. That’s about 3,000 words too many: his core thesis is really pretty simple. Cohen’s art collecting, says Sernovitz, holds up a mirror to his professional life: both are about the “struggle against the mortality of the edge”.

The idea here is that contemporary artists and stock-market traders — both of which Cohen collects — are similarly searching for the “edge”: that original and unique thing which sets them apart from everybody else. And if you look at Cohen’s art collection, it’s long on pieces from radical artists’ “incandescent years” — the years when they were doing something shockingly new. That’s what Cohen looks for in art, and it’s what Cohen looks for in traders, too: not people doing the same thing as everybody else in a slightly better way, but people who aspire to doing something that no one else is even attempting.

The “edge”, in art and in trading, never lasts long, and Cohen is himself exceptional in that regard: he’s been generating alpha for much longer than most traders ever can. But crucially he has done that by collecting: he himself is no Picasso, reinventing himself in one genius new incarnation after another. Rather, he finds the people who have that edge right now, he hires them, and then, when they lose their edge, he’s ruthless about firing them.

When Cohen looks around his trading floor, then, he sees the same thing that he sees when he surveys his art collection: a group of extremely talented and mostly quite young men, at the peak of their powers, engaged in a doomed and heroic struggle against their own inevitable decline, which will coincide with somebody else’s rise.

I like this idea, although I have no idea whether it’s true or not; I can certainly see how it would appeal to a novelist. Cohen, in this telling, becomes a latter-day Dorian Gray — only in this case his pictures, which reflect the way he seeks to dominate the world by collecting exceptional talent, are on full public view.

Naturally, if this were a novel, it would have a tragic ending: Cohen’s hubris would lead inexorably to nemesis. But real life is not always that tidy. Cohen might be facing unusually large redemptions right now, but he’s already made his billions; his wealth is liquid, and he’s not going to let a few insider-trading investigations damage his legacy as an art collector.

A lot of art-world observers are not-so-secretly hoping that Cohen will get his comeuppance and be forced to sell a large chunk of his collection. But it’s not going to happen. Cohen’s a master collector: he’ll sell only if and when he wants to. And given that he’ll never need the money, it’s hard to see why he’d ever feel so inclined.

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