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Giuseppe Nahmad, one of the world’s most colorful and successful art dealers and collectors, died in Monte Carlo, Monaco on November 23, 2012. News of his death was not released by his immediate family but confirmed by multiple sources who report that Mr. Nahmad was buried on November 26 in Jerusalem next to his parents and nearby an older brother who died in 1958.
Throughout his fifty-five year career as a buyer and seller of modern masterpieces, Mr. Nahmad’s impact on artists and collectors worldwide was significant. His family’s personal collection of modern art is famed for quality and quantity. But nowhere have the Nahmads left a bigger footprint than in the often secretive, often controversial world of auction houses and dealerships – and on the multi-million dollar transactions conducted in the world’s far-flung art capitals.
Both as a dealer and collector, Giuseppe Nahmad (or “Joe,” as he was known) focused exclusively on the great modern tradition, including impressionism, post-impressionism, and modern art. He amassed a multi-billion fortune buying and selling most of the major names in 19th and 20th century art: from Monet and Pissarro to Picasso, Braque, Leger, Miro, Rothko, Vlaminck, and numerous others.
In 2007, Forbes estimated the value of the Nahmad holdings between $3 and $4 billion. Joe Nahmad and his partners in the business – his younger brothers David and Ezra, chose a conservative approach in terms of the kind of art they buy and sell. Joe Nahmad built the business on the many tried-and-true names of modern art, the Matisse’s and Picasso’s. They do not as a rule, dabble in contemporary or conceptual art.
Yet there has been nothing particularly conservative about either their business practices or their lifestyle. In both areas, Joe set a frenetic pace that his brothers and nephews (both named Hillel, or “Helly”) have duly maintained.
A Bold Business Model
It was Joe Nahmad who transformed the art dealership landscape by holding on to art works for as long as necessary, and by buying as voraciously as he sold. Where most dealers take a lean-and-mean approach to inventory (usually because that’s all they can afford to do), Mr. Nahmad had a dramatically different idea. In lieu of the relatively small mark-ups that dealers typically get at auction, Mr. Nahmad collected his masterpieces as if they were futures, selling only at the propitious moment.
Nahmad’s father had been a successful banker and Joe seemed to have assimilated a few key lessons about how solid business reserves appreciate. One example speaks volumes: Joe and his brothers bought Picasso’s 1955 portrait of his second wife Jacqueline in 1995 for $2.6 million and sold it for $30.8 million twelve years later.
Current Nahmad “reserves” include 4,500-5,000 works warehoused in a tax-free facility at the Geneva, Switzerland airport. Their private collection also exceeds the billion-dollar plateau, easily. Its 300 works by Picasso alone are valued at $900 million and is generally considered to be the largest single holding of these works except for the Picasso family’s own collection.
A Notable Lifestyle
In his younger days, Joe Nahmad lived opulently, enough so that friends often called him “Joe Farouk,” referencing the libertine Egyptian king of the early 1950s.
Based in Milan, he also had homes in Portofino, London, Paris, Marbella, and Cannes. He was a devotee of Italian luxury cars and owned a veritable fleet of Ferrari’s and Maserati’s. Nahmad, who never married, was at one point romantically linked to American movie star Rita Hayworth.
Giuseppe Nahmad was born in 1932 in Aleppo, Syria, the son of Hillel Nahmad and Mathilde Safra. Hillel was a prosperous banker who founded Nahmad & Beyda in Syria and later opened a branch in Beirut, where the family eventually moved in 1945. The Nahmads, citizens of Italy, were Sephardic Jews who spoke French, Arabic, and other languages at home.
Joe had seven siblings. Older brother Albert was a banker in Rio de Janeiro who died in an airplane accident in 1958. His younger brothers David and Ezra followed Joe and grew into Joe’s art business in the late 1960s and together the three sat atop their empire for half a century. Joe’s four sisters all survive: Denise, Jacqueline, Nadia, and Evelyne.
Mr. Nahmad first opened his dealership when he settled in Milan in 1957, assisted during his earlier years in business by sister Nadia. David and Ezra joined the enterprise while still teenagers in 1963, in part to help the business during what was likely the only financial crisis in its history, a crisis which a bailout from father Hillel also helped alleviate. Their own sons now run high-profile galleries in New York and London, both called the Hillel Nahmad Gallery.
It was Joe’s genius to seize on the transformation of Milan itself into a global art capital during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In an age when art prices were simply not transparent, entrepreneurs like Nahmad were all the more able to seize on some very attractive city-by-city differentials. For example, the Paris market was especially depressed at the time, and resale margins in Milan went as high as 100%.
Nahmad was also going right to the source: the artists themselves. He discovered Lucio Fontana, negotiated for a significant portion of Giorgio De Chirico’s work, and commissioned paintings from the likes of Wilfredo Lam. But the real key to Nahmad’s success lay in his own instincts and background. He spoke multiple languages, a fluency that opened door after global door. He was in constant tenacious pursuit of buying and selling opportunities. In the early 1970s, for example, Nahmad was buying works by Picasso at what are now unthinkably low prices: $40,000 to $50,000 apiece.
His memory for prices and price differentials was prodigious, and he had the acuity to leverage those numbers for the gargantuan short- and long-term profits they represented. Joe was a tireless mentor as well, grooming his brothers during constant visits to Paris, London, and Geneva. By the 1970s, Joe Nahmad’s empire had expanded throughout Europe as well as in New York and Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.
The inflated Japanese market of the 1980s was music to Nahmad’s ears. As auction prices reached eight figures for single works, Nahmad sold and sold, virtually wholesaling modern masterpieces to deep pockets like the Fuji Television Gallery. He soon accumulated so much cash that he could go on a buying spree right through 1989 when the Tokyo market crashed. Then, of course, he’d hold and sell, sometimes for years, but he was always selling.
As Christopher Burge, honorary chairman of Christie’s New York, put it, “The Nahmads have sold more works of art than anybody alive.”
In 2006, Joe Nahmad moved to Monte Carlo where he would spend the last years of his life. At the end, in failing health and increasingly reclusive, he continued to buy and sell art via computer and telephone during this period , reportedly buying art as late as twenty days before his death. His brothers sought his counsel until the very end on significant art acquisitions and financial transactions. A dozen or more daily telephone conversations between Joe and his brothers were reportedly not uncommon right up until the day he died.
Most of his surviving siblings, as well as his nieces and nephews attended Giuseppe Nahmad’s funeral in Jerusalem.
Mr. Nahmad is survived by six siblings: David Nahmad of New York and Monte Carlo; Ezra Nahmad of London and Monte Carlo; Denise Nahmad Amon of Chicago; Jacqueline Nahmad Harari and Evelyne Nahmad Matalon, both living in Milan; and Nadia Nahmad Chowaki, who lives in Denver, Colorado.
A second exhibition of works from the family collection is scheduled for July 11, 2013 at the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo. It will feature the works by Picasso and could be dedicated to Giuseppe Nahmad, honoring him as the collection’s founder.
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