The New York Times profiles the Mugrabi family in their Sunday magazine. The story is mostly a filigree on Kelly Crow’s great Wall Street Journal profile from early 2008 which is sadly no longer available online.
Since this story repeats many of the well-known anecdotes about the Mugrabi’s operations–the warehouses of Warhols, Wesselmanns and Basquiats; Alberto v. David; Jose’s love of Warhol; the active bidding to support prices; the multi-hundred million dollar offer they turned down for a cache of Warhols (will they regret it?); and questions about the overall quality of their trove considering their habit of hoovering up paintings–the noteworthy aspect is the editorial decision to run it now. In the wake of the YSL sale, where Jose had a walk-on role, the story looks odd.
It opens with a dramatic scene from the Hirst auction that attempts to position Jose Mugrabi as the man who saved the sale from stalling out by spotting a live bidder. It’s a big reach, even as dramatic device. But it is meant to set up the rest of the story which explores the family’s role as market makers:
For the Mugrabis’ preferred artists, the family doesn’t merely operate in the art market; it is the market. “They’re so invested, they’re like the casino, not the gambler,” said the gallery owner Francis Naumann, a friend. What threatens them at an auction is not the presence of other aggressive bidders but cautious bidders.
“If it’s good for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, it’s good for us,” Alberto said. [ . . . ]
As private dealers, the Mugrabis do not own a gallery or represent artists. They buy or sell works in about 100 art auctions annually, nearly one every three days (sometimes, with smaller auctions, they bid via phone). And the rest of the time, they buy and sell through galleries and fellow dealers.
“We’re market makers,” Alberto said. “You can’t have an impact buying one or two pictures per artist. We’re not buying art like Ron Lauder — just to put it on a wall. We want inventory.” He equated inventory with liquidity: “It gives you staying power.” In the commodities sector, the analogue would be making a run on a precious metal — in order to manipulate the price. [ . . . ]
The Mugrabis, however, insist they will be able to continue doing what they do, regardless of how the ground may have shifted beneath their feet. “We’ll become more like collectors and less like dealers now,” David said. “More buying, less selling. It’s like Warren Buffett said — a down market is when you find the bargains. Not that much that is special has come up yet, but when it does, we’ll be there.
Beyond making this one point, the article wonders aimlessly about the value of their horde of art in a declining market. Which brings us back to the YSL sale. That event seems to hold some rough symmetry with the Hirst sale. In both cases, provenance became value. And the event became additional provenance.
The interesting question for collector-dealers like the Mugrabis, Nahmads, Peter Brant and, even, someone like David Geffen (or Steven Cohen) is whether their provenance will add value in the years to come.
Is Anybody Buying Art These Days? (The New York Times)