London’s Helly Nahmad went to lunch with the Financial Times’s Jackie Wullschlager last month. The whole story is well worth reading. Nahmad hints at a compelling family story with passionate arguments, saturnine personalities and an overwhelming commitment to Modern art. Though the family deals art, the collection being shown in Switzerland is more than just gallery stock.
Even with the massive changes that have overtaken the art market, Nahmad points out that the annual turnover of the business—which he puts a suspiciously low $15bn figure upon—is comparable to the annual revenue of a small car company. Industrial magnates from Russia, the Gulf States and Europe have greater resources than the family of art dealers he represents:
“The whole argument of the Kunsthaus is to show dealers’ collections are the best. Now we know what the collection is, we see strengths and weaknesses – not that there are many weaknesses; a better Mondrian, there should be a Van Gogh. There will be a lot of buying now with a view to the collection. Inevitably, we will work harder at making this group more coherent, stronger. Bidding for Léger’s ‘Still Life’ this year [the Nahmad family won it at $7.9m], I thought, ‘This is for the Kunsthaus.’ It felt like a museum painting – one notch above what a collector would have. The exhibition accelerates in everyone’s mind that this is a group – our A-team.”
Where will the collection end up? “We have a museum for three months, then we’ll feel sad the paintings are no longer a group but shelf numbers, but it will become clear – maybe our own museum, maybe a long-term loan.” The phone has rung ceaselessly since the Zurich launch, says Nahmad, with museums internationally clamouring to show the works. Surely no western collector will amass such pieces again.
As he puts it, “We can’t buy anything we like! Since the Berlin Wall fell, the amount of wealth creation has been gigantic – we have lots of money compared to dealers, but we’re competing with collectors who blow us away. They’re pumping oil out of the Arctic, buying pipelines; we’re a business where the assets are valuable but small compared to people building tankers, mining, chemicals. Russia and the Uzbeks, Brazil with a huge middle class, amazing growth, are exerting their influence. You can be the biggest operators in the art world as we are but the people buying the best paintings, the Picassos, are not us, unfortunately. If we come head to head with a shark in the pond, there is no chance we’ll catch the fish – or if we did, it would require a lot of thought how this would be paid for.”
Lunch with the FT: Helly Nahmad (Financial Times)