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Joseph Nahmad


by Rachel Corbett
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Joseph Nahmad bought his first painting two years ago -- when he was 19 years old. “I saw this amazing Lucio Fontana at Sotheby’s in London, and I called my father,” he said recently over chamomile tea at Café Carlyle. “But I couldn’t reach him, so I bought it on a whim.” It was one of the artist’s sliced Concetto Spaziale canvases, hammered down at £1.8 million. “When I told my father about it, he was not very pleased.” He had sold the very same painting 40 years earlier for about $2,000.

The impromptu Fontana purchase may have been an expensive gamble, but it's not so surprising if your father is billionaire collector David Nahmad, your older brother is Manhattan dealer Helly Nahmad, and your family has amassed, over 60-plus years, quite possibly the largest private collection of Impressionist and modern art in the world. The Nahmads, who now live in London, Monaco and New York, are notorious for treating the art market like the stock market. They protect the prices of the artists they own, for instance, by bidding on their works at auction. "It's called defending your inventory," said Helly Nahmad in a 2007 Forbes interview.

Joseph Nahmad skipped college -- “I’ve been going to auctions since I was five,” he reasoned -- and instead has been working for the past two years at Helly Nahmad Gallery in New York (Joseph’s cousin is also named Helly and has a gallery of the same name in London). Now he is going out on his own, rejecting the family’s longstanding formula of buying nothing made after 1965 (his father famously once called the contemporary art market “almost a fraud”), and launching Joseph Nahmad Contemporary this week. The inaugural show, “Blind,” Nov. 17-26, 2011, is a solo presentation by painter, sculptor and interior designer Roy Nachum at the 5,000-square-foot Openhouse pop-up gallery at 201 Mulberry Street.

“At first I went without telling my father. He’s very hard-headed; he likes to stick to his bread and butter and he thinks contemporary art is all about marketing and hype,” said Joseph, who has a beard, un-slicked brown hair and a youthful, casual carriage. “Gradually he will be convinced that they have to expand.”

For one thing, the recent Impressionist and modern sales in New York “kind of struggled,” Joseph said, “while the contemporary market was fireworks.” Joseph has already sold about 40 percent of Nachum’s works, priced between $5,000 for small sculptures of gorilla heads and up to $100,000 for his paintings that incorporate Braille along the surfaces. Nachum, who consulted with Lighthouse International for this show, approaches questions of sense perception -- visual and tactile -- from several vantage points. For one series, he invited 12 blind people to his Manhattan studio and covered their hands in charcoal so they could create “brushstrokes” across canvases. Nahmad expects about 1,000 guests at the opening.

Next up at Joseph Nahmad Contemporary is a Street Art exhibition in May that features Jean-Michel Basquiat and his contemporaries. Joseph has enlisted the curatorial help of filmmaker and graffiti artist Nemo Librizzi, and though he hasn’t nailed down the location or details, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if he also includes influential examples from his family’s collection, perhaps by modern masters like Jean Dubuffet and Pablo Picasso.

After that, Joseph hopes to host one or two more of these ephemeral exhibitions before assembling his own stable of artists and two brick-and-mortar galleries -- ideally in London and New York. His father isn’t backing him financially, he says, but the current pop-up format is “a way for Dad to feel more comfortable. It offers lots of reward and little risk.”

Just then Joseph got abruptly quiet -- “that’s my father’s voice now,” he said, pointing to an adjacent room in the restaurant. He got up and brought David Nahmad back to the table. “I was just saying that you aren’t really against contemporary art,” he said, “but the manipulation of the contemporary art market.”

“That’s right,” said David, who was at the Carlyle having a drink with an important collector of outdoor sculpture. “I support Joe 100 percent, whether it’s a success or not. But it will be because it’s his first experience in this field and most success begins in big failures.”

Besides, David’s already seen one of his son’s mistakes pay off. A month after Joseph bought the pricy Fontana, David went to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. “I go in and I see [veteran Fontana dealer Gian Enzo] Sperone and I said, ‘what are you doing with these prices?’ He said, ‘didn’t you see what happened to Fontana last month?’ Since then, his prices have been gradually going up.”

“I completely changed the Fontana market,” Joseph added.

It’s that kind of power that has earned the family its fair share of criticism. They readily admit that they entered the industry as businessman, not patrons of the arts, and they deal almost exclusively on the secondary market. The family’s strategy is to buy and hold, stashing away an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 works, worth around $3 billion to $4 billion, in a tax-free Geneva warehouse. Still, no one knows the full extent of the collection because the only people allowed inside the vault are the family’s most important clients and the 20 or so full-time employees.

But recently the family dispelled some of the mystery. Late last month, the Nahmads opened a major exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich of about 100 of their top masterpieces, including works by Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Kasimir Malevich, Joan Miró and, their specialty, Picasso.

Unsurprisingly, Swiss critics have complained that the exhibition is too much of a commercial enterprise, merely a way for the family to raise the value of its collection. “They describe it as a private collection, but it’s a dealer’s inventory,” said former head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department David Nash, who now co-owns Mitchell-Innes & Nash. “It would be a wonderful thing for any dealer to have an exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. It gives it a sort of stamp of celebrity.”

Yet the Kunsthaus denies the classification of the works as inventory. According to an email from museum spokesman Björn Quellenberg, “We think that when we put on a unique art dealer's family collection (not stock!), the enlightenment for the public weighs over commercial interests.”

Either way, Nash made it clear that he isn’t against the show -- in fact, he’d like to see more interaction between museums and dealers. And it looks as though that might be the case soon enough. The Nahmads have already been approached by a number of museums hoping to host the exhibition, including the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Joseph said he couldn’t speak authoritatively on the family’s plans because his cousin Helly is the show’s main organizer, but he thought they were leaning against loaning the works out further.

As David got up to join his friend at the next table over, Joseph asked, “Are you going to come to the opening Dad?”

“When is it again?” David said.


“Well, if I don’t go to Paris I will come by for a few minutes,” he said with a proud smile before adding, “Now he will have cancellations and make mistakes and lose money, but that’s all part of becoming mature. For me, it was the most interesting thing to see my youngest son sign his first check.”

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email