There was really only one stand worth a visit in the whole of this travelling circus called Frieze and Frieze Masters in October, amongst the spray-tans, Armani suits and Hindmarch handbags, and that was the Helly Nahmad Gallery’s offering called The Collector. This was thinking outside conventional gallery precepts, in that it was more like a film set or a piece of theatre. Visitors could walk around this ‘apartment’ from Paris 1968, peer into the sitting room, a study, the bedroom and the small kitchen, with the sink piled up with dirty dishes and marvel at the attention to detail, even down to cinema ticket stubs, receipts, overflowing ashtrays, with Gitanes butts, naturellement, and piles of Paris Match, Le Monde and L’Oeil, the French arty mag. There were stacks of period newspapers, catalogues from auction houses and exhibitions on the floor and tables, postcards, photographs and political posters pinned to the wall, monographs, catalogues raisonnés, art books and vinyl records packed into bookshelves.
On the two small televisions looped black and white Truffaut and Godard films were playing, interspersed with shots of Brigitte Bardot, newsreel clips from the Paris student riots of ‘68 and the Tour de France, with Miles Davis hauntingly mixed with Les Swingle Singers, and the soundtrack from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
We were told the apartment belonged to an obsessive and imaginary collector. As Helly Nahmad said in his introduction, “Our Collector is a complex character with a completely unique [sic] personality. A passionate, brilliant, eccentric and humble man. Living in post-war Milan and then Paris, he lives and breathes art.”
The man who breathed life into the installation was production designer Robin Brown, who was responsible for a cute Bonnie and Clyde period commercial for Entenmann’s cakes. In amongst this deep-litter disarray were hanging paintings by Picasso, Miró, Morandi, Cy Twombly, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Magritte and Dali. On a bedside table, there were three striding Giacometti figures, as casual as you like.
The Nahmad family descended from a prosperous banker, Hillel, from Aleppo, Syria, where he lived until just after the second World War. Following anti-Jewish violence in 1947, he moved to Beirut, and when the situation there became difficult, he took his three sons, Joseph, Ezra and David, to Milan in the early 1960s. All three brothers ended up making a fortune from art. With the emergence of the Red Brigade in the 1970s, Milan was perceived as too dangerous, and the family moved again. Joseph and Ezra headed for Monaco, and David to New York.
Today, their art inventory takes up 15,000 square feet of a duty-free building next to Geneva’s international airport. It is estimated that the warehouse in 2007 contained between 4,500 and 5,000 works of art, worth between $3-4 billion at the time, according to Forbes, including 300 Picasso’s, worth some $900 million. According to Christopher Burge, Christie’s New York chairman, they have sold more works of art than anybody alive. They have bought and sold art on a massive scale over the years, including Morandi’s Natura Morta and a Picasso portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, for $2.6m, which they sold in 2007 for $30.6m. Other auction purchases for their collection include Picasso’s portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, La Dormeuse au Miroir for $5.5m in 1990, Monet’s Le Palais Contarini for $4.2m in 1996 and Les Canotiers à Argenteuil for $9m in 1998, now valued at $40 million. To cap it all, they paid $60 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 for Kazimir Malevich’s 1916 Suprematist Composition. Léger’s Still Life went to the Nahmad family for $7.9m, while Kandinsky’s Study for Improvisation 3 was sold to them for $16.9 million at Christie’s in 2008.
Helly’s cousin, son of David, also called Helly, (confused?) operated the Helly Nahmad Gallery out of the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and in April this year, in connection with his leadership role in the operation of a high-stakes illegal sports gambling business and money laundering, he was sentenced in a Manhattan federal court to one year and one day; as if he didn’t have enough money. He is now $6.4 million lighter, as that was the extent of his fine, and all his right, title, and interest in Carnaval à Nice by Raoul Dufy, went to the United States, as the painting was involved in a scam to con a British model, who wanted to ‘lose’ some earnings in the Bahamas.
He and professional poker player Illya Trincher, who was also fined $6.4 million, operated a nationwide illegal gambling business in New York City and Los Angeles that catered primarily to multi-millionaire and billionaire clients, including Russian gang bosses and Hollywood film stars, like Leonardo DiCaprio. As part of this business, the organization ran a high-stakes, illegal sportsbook that utilized several online gambling websites operating illegally in the United States, which made millions of dollars of sports bets each year. Nahmad was the primary source of financing for the illegal gambling business, and he was entitled to a substantial share of its profits.
The Nahmad family story would itself make a terrific film, a cross between Catch Me If You Can and Citizen Kane, maybe starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Helly, with Christopher Walken as his father? At least one set has already been designed.
The Collector – Helly Nahmad Gallery