MEETING/David Nahmad keeps only a tiny part of his collection of Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Rothko and especially Picasso paintings in Monaco. A focus on this emblematic art dealer who does not hesitate to berate speculation in contemporary art.
He is undoubtedly one of the most powerful men in the art market. In 2014, Wealth-X ranked David Nahmad the world’s biggest collector, after media tycoon David Greffen the founder of Dreamworks, Eli Broad the founder of KB Home, and Philip Niarchos the heir to Greek ship-owner Stavros Niarchos. Counters panic when the name David Nahmad is whispered. It is said he has over 4500 works valued at 3 billion dollars stored in the Geneva freeports, and over 10,000 have been bought during his career. The art dealer is amused or even annoyed by this. “The figures mean nothing. 10,000 works bought in 62 years is nothing exceptional.” To put the valuations of his collection in perspective, he recalls that he has just sold 400 for 400,000 euro. That is 1000 euro each on average.
During the interview he gave L’Obs in the Hotel Métropole lobby, David Nahmad preferred to tell the story of 20th century art, with many supporting anecdotes. That’s logical. The life of this dealer born in 1947 crosses paths with the lives of the century’s major artists. The eighth child of Hillel Nahmad, a Syrian banker who settled in Beirut in 1945 before migrating to Italy, David Nahmad got into the saddle with his older brother Joseph. Settled in Milan, “Joe” was a colourful character that director Claude Berri wanted to immortalise for the big screen. The businessman began to collect young Italian artists, from Lucio Fontana to Arnaldo Pomodoro. He sold them to the giants of Cinecittà, such as Sofia Loren. Young David accompanied him to galleries and auctions, and made his first sale, a Max Ernst, aged 17. He was thus to give up his dream of becoming a mathematician. But with no regrets. “In art I discovered a great science! If Kandinsky created abstraction, Duchamp created Dadaism, Breton was at the start of the surrealist movement and we have come to informal art, consumer society or pop art, that’s because there’s a logic to it,” he says today.
In the 60s, a stock market crash definitively put him on the art market track. “We lost 95% of our cash flows in the crash. Everything we had left was unsalable. Then we were saved by the paintings Joe owned.” 1967- 1968 was a strategic period. “We sold works at three times the price we paid for them because there was demand! During crises, art is a safe haven.” David and his brother Ezra, with whom he set up a gallery in Milan, created their network very quickly. They approached dealers of Picasso (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler), Matisse and the futurists. “I bought at source. Picasso was worth nothing in the 60s. A drawing cost 500 dollars.”
A Picasso fan
Today, David Nahmad is one of the greatest collectors of the Spanish artist, as evidenced by the summer 2014 Picasso exhibition at Grimaldi Forum which highlighted 116 works from Nahmad’s collection. They included the H version of Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers), the octogenarian’s favourite painting. “This painting has an incredible history. In 1954, Picasso reinterpreted the Delacroix “Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement” (Women of Algiers in their Apartment). He created fifteen different versions and refused to sell them separately. After long negotiations, the diamond dealer Victor Ganz bought the whole set for 212,000 dollars. Rumour had it that Picasso asked his dealer: “Who is the fool who bought at that price?” Ganz then got even by selling half of the set for the same amount, telling himself “We’ll see which of the two of us is the fool”! Surprisingly, David Nahmad, who has owned 300 Picassos, never wanted to meet “the Master”: “I was very close to his dealer who gave me everything. I found it rude to go and meet Picasso behind his back.”
“Fictitious” art market
During his career, Nahmad has seen all the evolution of the art market. The sustaining of the collections of Sergio Leone, Frank Sinatra and Kirk Douglas, as he now sells masterpieces to Madonna and Leonardo DiCaprio. Known for his flair, the dealer – who lives in Monaco – bought his first Bacon in 1967 for 800 pounds (around 2000 dollars), and was familiar with the best public sales of the 70s (Rosenberg, Von Hirsch). “If I’d started 10 years later, I’d never have been able to obtain the masterpieces I bought!” he admits. So far, his biggest acquisition is a Malevitch bought for 60 million dollars in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, for his son Helly. The art dealer is not a sentimentalist on what should be sold or kept. “You need to keep what becomes a historical document, a testimony of our society and our culture. For example, the world changed with space exploration and the artists who evidence that are Fontana, by piercing the canvas, and Yves Klein by creating the void.” Nevertheless, David Nahmad remains sentimental. He refuses to sell the Tanguy and Max Ernst works he bought when he was 18. “Those paintings cost me nothing and they symbolise my life story.”
Pleasure of loaning
Nowadays, Nahmad buys no more than 5 “large size” canvases a year. According to him, the art market is non-existent due to the “material” available. “There’s no more supply. So there are two markets. The historic market and the speculative market.” He gives an eloquent example: “If someone wants to buy two Van Goghs, they won’t find them. On the other hand, they will find 50 Damien Hirsts. We are creating a fictitious market. It’s like the stock market, stock is inflated by those with an interest in speculating.” Now, David Nahmad, who exhibited almost 120 paintings in 2011 at the Zurich Kunsthaus, enjoys above all seeing his collection by loaning the works worldwide. “We have loaned to a total of 200 museums, including 40 in France. We have exhibited our paintings more than anyone!” This will be the case from 2 March, at the Musée Maillol in Paris. The 21 rue La Boétie exhibition retraces the path of Paul Rosenberg, one of the greatest art dealers of the 20th century. The sixty modern art masterpieces (Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Marie Laurencin etc.) re-establish what was Anne Saint-Clair’s grandfather’s gallery before he fled to New York from the occupying Nazis. And in Paris again, in 2018 David Nahmad will contribute to the great exhibition of Juan Miró’s works at the Grand Palais, orchestrated by Jean-Louis Prat. “I hope this will be a Miró Mirror exhibition, in conjunction with the artists he influenced,” enthuses the collector, who has no shortage of plans. The next one? “I’d love to have a property in Monaco to show the 100 masterpieces I’ve managed to collect in half a century. I’m willing to finance it,” the Monaco resident proposes calmly. As on the business side, the next generation is there. With his son Helly, whose gallery on Madison Avenue, New York specialises in contemporary art, and also with Jo, the youngest in whom he spotted great flair. Family and art are sacred for the Nahmads. David Nahmad is delighted that he made his father and his cousin, the banker Edmond Safra, understand the importance of art before they died. “Nothing in this world is more crucial than art,” he whispers.
Modigliani: “I bought it at a public sale!”
Since 2011 and the Panama Papers last year, Nahmad’s name has also been associated with a Modigliani painting claimed by the grandson of the Jewish British antique dealer Oscar Stettiner, who was forced to flee from Paris during the Second World War. A Canadian company specialised in tracking works of owners despoiled by the Nazis had encouraged him to claim for restitution before the courts of America against the Nahmad family, that now owns this painting stored in Geneva freeport. In 2016, David Nahmad told AFP that “no documents show proof that Oscar Stettiner was despoiled of this painting, or that he was the owner of it”. Today, he confirms: “Even the rabbi of my synagogue in New York asks me why I have not returned this painting. I bought it at a public sale in 1996 in London! (for 1.9 million pounds sterling, Editor’s Note). I have loaned it to 5 museums and have never hidden.” Sequestered by the Swiss justice after the Panama Papers, the masterpiece was returned to the art collector in May 2016 and the investigation closed by the Geneva public prosecutor’s department. _M.R.