Lunch with the FT: Helly Nahmad

The Nahmad art dealing family are known for three things: their wealth, estimated by Forbes at $3bn (“They have sold more works of art than anybody alive,” according to Christie’s New York chairman Christopher Burge); their world-class Picasso collection; and their secrecy. This last, it turns out, extends not only to their blue-chip art – guarded in a (tax-free) warehouse at Geneva airport – but even to the venue where I am to meet 35-year-old Helly Nahmad. He runs the clan’s London gallery; a cousin, also called Helly – both are named for their grandfather Hillel – is at the helm of the other Nahmad Gallery, in New York.

The London Helly has agreed to talk because he has just launched the first ever public showing of the family collection, at Zurich’s Kunsthaus museum. He has chosen Paris for lunch, and his driver awaits me at the Gare du Nord. It’s not until we are halfway across the city that the restaurant is revealed: Brasserie Lipp, where the belle époque decor of wrought-iron chandeliers and ceramic mosaics is unchanged since Proust ordered Alsatian beer and Hemingway wrote his novels there.

Only regulars are shown into the front room but, before I can observe the seating hierarchy in action (Parisians get the back room, tourists are sent upstairs), Nahmad himself, casually dressed in navy jumper and open-necked blue shirt, bounds in. Large and round-faced, with curly black hair swept back, wide blue eyes and bushy eyebrows behind thick glasses, he half embraces me – “Let’s have a squeeze” – across our privileged central table, and greets the waiter with a warm, “Vous avez un bon sourire.”

He asks what I will drink. Whatever you do, I say. “But you might not like that!” he exclaims, requesting vodka and orange juice. I order a coupe de champagne, to celebrate his exhibition – an extraordinary, in-depth array of a hundred or so little-shown paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Léger, Juan Gris, which the Nahmads have kept back from gallery stock as “last chance opportunities” – works so rare and exceptional that, once sold, they will not reappear on the market.

“The overriding message of great artists is that they appreciate the hidden – that is, what’s real,” Nahmad opens. “They counter material reality. These glasses,” – he takes a couple from the table and slams them down again loudly – “these are invented, just an illusion. Brasserie Lipp,” a wave of the hand spans busy tables and gliding waiters – “all this is meaningless. The reason I love what I do is that we are close to people and things made by people saying, ‘I exist and this is how I feel.’ ”

With this rather gnomic definition of the modernist art that made his family’s fortune, Nahmad cancels the vodka and joins me in a glass of champagne. “It’s October 24, I’m very happy I’m sitting opposite Jackie Wullschlager, it’s sunny in Paris, I’d like to stay here for a couple of years. I want to slow everything down.” In fact, he speaks fast and volubly. Sometimes, I detect a trace of a European accent, hard to place precisely; Nahmad’s first language is Italian, the family talk French. “I’m so conscious that we’re all here for a few seconds – we have to love each other! If you feel that, you avoid a lot of distractions and traps.”

Single-mindedness is, certainly, in Nahmad’s DNA. His father Ezra and uncle David were from a Beirut Jewish family that included rabbis and money lenders. The pair relocated to Milan where, as teenagers in the 1960s, they began to deal in art. They would strap Picassos and Mirós to the roof of their car and import them from Paris to Italy under the tutelage of another brother, Joseph. An older sibling, Albert, had died in a plane crash in the 1950s; Joseph, once “a big spender but now tight with himself and uncomfortable with happy people”, has been “in mourning” for decades, says Nahmad.

In the 1970s and 1980s, dealers were not the international multi-gallery outfits typified by Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth today; they were local, with largely domestic collector bases and there was no Frieze or internet. The Nahmads, however, were cosmopolitan – David moved to New York, Ezra was based in Europe, first in London, now in Monaco, and the family were able to profit from sometimes significantly different artist prices on the two continents.

In London, Helly was educated at St Paul’s and the Courtauld, and spent his teens crisscrossing Europe’s museums – “I’m not a psycho just because people normally don’t look at canvases like I do. I like to get very close, see the edges”. He opened the Mayfair gallery in 1998, aged 21.

But the collection’s warehouse home meant the family had never seen their paintings displayed together until he organised the Zurich show. “This exhibition was always going to be a game-changer, opening our eyes to what we knew we were subconsciously doing. The paintings are a kind of testimony of our existence – all that hard work and fighting, the 24/7 nature of my family. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, it went on for 40 years before – this exhibition is a product of that struggle. It’s a privilege to build on that. We are traditional but avant-garde as well – you need consciousness and respect for what’s gone before, because that came for a reason, in terms of value and traditions. Everyone’s dream is to become a classic.”

Few artists do, though, and one reason the Nahmads’ success is resented in the loud 21st-century art world is their apparent disdain for contemporary work, which David Nahmad recently called “almost a fraud”, naming the works of Richard Prince, a conceptual appropriation artist, “luxury products”. Does Helly agree?

“Yes, in a nutshell. I don’t think Richard Prince decided to waste his life making trash, so to someone they’re worth something. What they’re worth is a different argument. We’re not thick, we get the meaning of Marlboro Man [Prince’s rephotographed Marlboro advertisements] but we need to assign value, and if you’re saying it’s like an 1890 Van Gogh, there’s a problem. We have to weigh sensitivity and poetry. We make choices, based on what we believe is the right value.”

As a teenager, Nahmad bought work by Damien Hirst – “I paid £2,400 for an ashtray, that felt authentic in 1990s recession London. Even when Hirst was £100,000 I liked it – but at £1m? One million pounds could buy a Picasso. I didn’t like the commercialisation or mass production. I like to stay where the ground is strong, so I was forced to exit. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong and the market will absorb all the late work but I attach importance to authenticity. Our success is because we are very close to reality. I love all art. You can take this table” – he makes as if to lift it – “and put it in the Venice Biennale and I’ll say ... ” – long pause – “it’s interesting. But our business is based on artists that are real, not shortcuts. The material is unbreakable. Like this restaurant – the first thing is that the food is good. There’s no need for a mentality of trickery.”

At this, a waiter appears. Nahmad looks surprised. “We’ve been here hours, we could have just finished and not ordered – that would have been the cheapest lunch ever.” Barely glancing at the menu, though, he selects the two most expensive things on it – foie gras and sole meunière. This time I follow suit.

“There is such a demand and fashion for art today that people don’t want to wait and see if it’s relevant to the next generation,” Nahmad continues. “If you are a collector, then it’s not your raison d’être, but it’s my living, I can’t be wrong. For us, it’s real life and people are reassured by us. It’s about how long you wait. It’s a priceless luxury that we can do that. If I was financially fragile, I might decide not to ignore what’s going on [in contemporary art] because I may be dead before the truth emerges. So money is important but your business mustn’t be about money.”

Financial reserves, though, permit the unassailable Nahmad strategy of buying low, sitting tight, and relying on diminishing supplies of modern masters to lift demand. “People think, ‘Helly Nahmad, oh you have money, you are sorted out.’ I’m telling you, you need a certain amount of money to be comfortable, after that it’s not what it’s about. There are people in my family who suffer from depression. The thing is to connect to people.”

Fat slabs of foie gras, accompanied by wafer-thin toast and rocket salad, arrive. “Write that we had pineapple!” says Nahmad, then orders more champagne. While we eat, he recounts a parable of a boy asked to blow the shofar [trumpet] at Yom Kippur. Believing himself inept, the boy sobbed as he played but was commended as brilliant because he had performed “with a broken heart. The spiritual significance is that all the keys open different rooms in the palace but one opens all the rooms – that key is a broken heart. Cute story, eh? With a broken heart, you can go anywhere – you’re not pious, not over-confident. It’s no good feeling you’re the 6ft tall guy, you’ve got to feel lucky to be alive. We’re in a tragic position, all of us, ultimately. That story knocked me for six. We need to counter this American optimism.”

Married with a growing young family – his wife was 18 when she had their first baby, a Nahmad tradition (his mother gave birth to him at 17 and had her last child at 42) – Nahmad looks to me like the “6ft tall guy”. “That’s a defence,” he counters. “We want to make everything look easy, without showing how much effort [we put in].

“People without complexes become unbearable. They’re very blunt instruments, they haven’t suffered a broken heart.” Jews make good dealers, he adds – an example is Picasso’s dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was “heroic”, perhaps because “dealing appeals to people, I don’t want to say with a broken heart, but who need to understand more. In the 20th century, Jews have had a big need to understand why they’re having a hard time”.

The sole, perfectly filleted, buttery, succulent, is served, with new potatoes. Nahmad ignores the vegetables and approaches the fish methodically, preoccupied again with his exhibition. “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. I’m not ruling it out but, by contrast, for someone else it’s one less boat, one less house, or not even.”

I ponder the Nahmads as the new poor while, over his coffee, my guest explains: “Our strength is that we are a family operation. You can’t have global corporate love. I like to make people feel like family. In the taxi here, I asked the driver what he liked doing, he said, ‘Singing,’ I said, ‘Sing!’ He sang me a beautiful song. The thing is to live for the business, you have to find the right thing for you – if someone’s the right man to be a bus conductor, he’s in harmony with his existence.”

Bus conductors, Brasserie Lipp – now emptying, as a newspaper seller enters to tempt stragglers with Le Monde – and buying and selling Picassos: do the Nahmads thrive on a near-obsolete worldview? Or does their success story puncture what he calls the “media circus of the art world”?

“The whole art market probably has less turnover than one car company. At an educated guess, it’s $15bn a year,” Nahmad says. “The only thing you can take to the business to make it like manufacturing is contemporary art – which is limitless, and with that factory process you are making a luxury product. But people now are over the fact that they can buy something online and sell in a second, they are desperate to find meaning. There’s real need for value and certainty.” Then he looks worried. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about myself. I sound like a megalomaniac.” I pay, assuring him lunch has been a pleasure. “Has it really?” he is still asking as I slip out on to the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Jackie Wullschlagers review of Leonardo Da Vinci at the National Gallery is in Arts

Brasserie Lipp

151 Boulevard SaintGermain, 75006 Paris

Coupe de champagne x3 €37.50

Foie gras x2 €42.00

Sole meunière x2 €79.00

Basket of bread €6.50

Coffee €4.50

Total €169.50

From selling books to sailors, to amassing a Picasso collection

1932 Joseph Nahmad, second son of Hillel, a Jewish banker, is born in Aleppo, Syria.

1940s Following anti-Jewish violence, the family move to Beirut, where Joseph’s brothers Ezra (1945) and David (1947) are born. As children, they source and sell English novels to US sailors stationed in Lebanon.

1950s Joseph pursues a business career in Milan and begins to collect art: Gauguin, Dalí, Magritte. Older brother Albert, a banker in South America, is killed in a plane crash.

1960s Political instability in Beirut leads the family to follow Joseph, now Giuseppe, to Milan. Ezra and David skip school to trade on the Italian stock market. At a Juan Gris exhibition in Rome organised by cubist dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Ezra and David buy two works – the only pieces sold. Kahnweiler befriends them, selling them works by Picasso, Braque, Gris. They visit Paris, at a time when no Italian dealers travel abroad. Fresh from the studio, they buy from Picasso’s “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe” series (1959-1962) – the start of a 300-work collection unrivalled outside the Picasso estate. The three brothers, now Italy’s leading modern art dealers, begin to travel to New York.

1970s The global petrol crisis, social unrest and rise of the Red Brigade in Italy encourages the Nahmads to look abroad to strengthen their business, which includes currency and commodity trading. In New York, they launch a gallery on Madison Avenue, opened by Dalí, and attract clients including Henry Ford, Alfred Barr, Douglas Cooper, Baron Thyssen and Peggy Guggenheim. Profiting from the art market slump, they buy half the works at a Sotheby’s auction of Kandinsky paintings in 1971.

1980s and 1990s The Nahmads supply the new Japanese demand for Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, taking their wealth to unprecedented levels. When the Japanese market crashes, the cash-rich Nahmads benefit again from ensuing low prices, buying cheap and holding. In 1995, they buy a Picasso portrait of his second wife Jacqueline Roque (pictured) for $2.6m; it sells in 2007 for $30.6m. Other auction purchases for the collection include Picasso’s portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, “La Dormeuse au Miroir” ($5.5m, 1990), Monet’s “Le Palais Contarini” ($4.2m, 1996 ) and “Les Canotiers à Argenteuil” ($9m, 1998).

2000s Through select, museum-quality shows, such as Picasso La Californie (2006) and Claude Monet (2009) in London and Soutine/Bacon (2011) in New York, the two Helly Nahmads raise the public profile of the family.

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