Dynasty prepares to share its family secrets
In his first ever interview, the dealer and collector Helly Nahmad reveals details about the family collection, which goes on show in Zurich this month
By Martin Bailey. Market, Issue 227, September 2011
Published online: 18 October 2011
The Nahmad family is one of the most powerful art-dealing dynasties to have emerged in recent decades. Forbes now values the family’s wealth at $3 billion, although this may be an underestimate. Nevertheless, and despite their conspicuous front-row bidding at auctions worldwide, they have kept a low profile regarding the extent of their private collection.
Now the Monaco-based family, who have amassed more than 3,000 works ranging from impressionism to surrealism, are about to “come out”. Highlights of their collection will go on show in October at the Kunsthaus in Zürich—including masterpieces by Renoir, Monet, Seurat, Malevich, Kandinsky, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Miró, Ernst and Dalí. The works have never been seen together before. To mark the occasion, London gallery owner Helly Nahmad has given his first ever interview, to The Art Newspaper.
The roots of the Nahmad family are in Aleppo, Syria, where banker Hillel Nahmad lived until just after the second world war. Following anti-Jewish violence in 1947, he moved to Beirut, Lebanon, and when the situation there became difficult, he took his three sons, Joseph, Ezra and David, to Milan in the early 1960s. All three brothers ended up making a fortune from art.
With the emergence of the Red Brigades terror group in the 1970s, Milan was perceived as too dangerous, and the family moved again. Joseph and Ezra headed for Monaco, and David to New York. Ezra and David both have sons named Helly, who run separate galleries with the same name—the Helly Nahmad Gallery.
The London-based Helly Nahmad Gallery, in Cork Street, was established by Ezra’s son in 1998. New York’s Helly Nahmad Gallery, in Madison Avenue, is a separate company run by David’s son, who took over his father’s earlier Davlyn Gallery. The Nahmad galleries deal in virtually the same artists—the great names of European modernism from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
The extent of the family’s private collection will be unveiled at the Kunsthaus in Zürich. Of the 300 masterpieces in the collection, 100 have been selected by museum director Christoph Becker and London gallery owner Helly Nahmad. Picasso will be particularly well represented, including his 1923-24 work Harlequin with Flowers, which has not been seen for decades.
Family collections are common, but the Nahmads’ is unusual in that it was bought by different branches but is regarded as a single entity. Relatively few of the paintings hang in individual family homes. Around 90% of them are held in an art storage facility at the freeport of Geneva airport.
As these works belong to dealers, some feel there is ambiguity over whether they should be regarded as a private collection or gallery stock. But London-based Helly Nahmad insists that there is a very clear distinction.
The Art Newspaper: Is it fair to say that your family has been regarded as secretive?
Helly Nahmad: There’s a fine line between being secretive and just having a low profile.
Why do you and your cousin operate as quite separate dealers under the name Helly Nahmad Gallery? You even specialise in the same artists. Doesn’t this confuse people?
This used to cause difficulties, but now people know us. Even though we cover the same period, we have different tastes. There are also different markets on the two sides of the Atlantic. Europeans like more challenging works—they always have. In America, people tend to prefer more recognisable images.
So essentially you cover the European market and your cousin the American one?
Yes, it’s exactly like that. I have virtually no American clients.
I don’t like travelling very much without my family. Europeans and Americans have different ways of doing business. People tend to be comfortable doing business with people from their own culture. My cousin and I each have our own style.
How was the collection begun?
It was about the time that I set up the London gallery in 1998, after graduating from the Courtauld Institute of Art. Before that, you could buy and sell a picture within a week. But then there was the demise of the Japanese market. The internet also meant that auction prices had become very transparent, so it was better to hold onto paintings for a while. So we started trying to buy ever greater quality. The collection just happened.
Is it difficult to be both a dealer and collector? When the family acquires a work, do you know whether it will go for sale or to the collection?
When I buy works, they are for my gallery. When my father and his two brothers buy, there are certain pictures they buy [for the galleries] because they are good value. But there are other paintings that we regard as “last chance” opportunities—these they keep in the collection. They see a clear distinction between the two categories.
Surely most of the family’s wealth must be tied up in art?
Tying it up in cash is more dangerous. Paintings resist [ie are a hedge against] inflation.
Are works sold from the collection?
How large is the collection?
In terms of museum-quality masterpieces, maybe 200 to 300 works. That to me is the heart of the collection—and what we will be showing at the Kunsthaus. However, in total the collection is more than 3,000 works, of which 90% are paintings.
How many Picassos do you have, and how important are they?
A couple of hundred or so oil paintings. It is the most important private collection outside the Picasso family.
Are you still adding to the collection?
Yes. We were recently in New York and tried to buy Picasso’s 1955 Woman from Algeria [which sold at Christie’s, New York, on 4 May for $21.4m]. We already own three paintings from the series and would like to have added this one, but we were outbid.
We acquired the monumental Léger painting Still Life  specifically for the Kunsthaus. It came from the heirs of former Guggenheim Museum director and Léger champion James Johnson Sweeney. [Still Life sold at Christie’s, New York, on 3 November 2010 for $7.9m.]
What artists would you and your cousin like to see added?
My cousin and I are on the same page. We want blue-chip modern art, iconic works that speak to as many people as possible—plus quirkier paintings that one of us may like on a personal level. We’d like to add works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Medardo Rosso and Bacon.
Why did the family agree to the Zürich show?
It was the first museum to approach us, and it came at just the right moment. We feel it is a way to experiment with the collection. [Ernst] Beyeler and [Heinz] Berggruen did the same thing by exhibiting before they opened their museums, although… I don’t think there’s a need for another museum with someone’s name on it.
Presumably the Zürich exhibition will help your business?
I’ll let you know after the show!
Isn’t it frustrating that 90% of the collection is in storage?
Yes, it is a shame. It is like a composer making a piece of music, and no one listens to it. That is one of the motivating factors behind the Kunsthaus exhibition. After that, we’ll have to think about future plans for the collection.
What will you get out of the Kunsthaus show?
We have never seen the works together. In Zürich, we’ll be able to say: “We are very strong on this, but we could be stronger on that.” It’s like looking into a mirror for the first time.
“The Nahmad Collection”, Kunsthaus, Zürich, 21 October-15 January 2012
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