Zurich’s Kuntshaus was bound to rock the art establishment when it invited the notorious Nahmad dealers to exhibit their goods. The museum’s director stands by his choice.

Pictured above: Henri Matisse, La lecture (deux fillettes, bouquet de pivoines sur fond noir), 1947. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55.2 cm, The Nahmad Collection © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / ProLitteris, Zurich

Article first published by Swissinfo on 26.10.11

Kunsthaus Director Christoph Becker is convinced that the quality of the works on show in “Miró, Monet, Matisse – The Nahmad Collection” will dispel any thoughts that a world-class art institution is catering to the commercial interests of a family who happens to deal art on a global scale. He explains his decision in an exclusive interview.

Christoph Becker, Director of Kunsthaus Zürich, photo Laird

The latest exhibition at Zurich’s fine arts museum is a direct consequence of its centenary celebration in 2010, when it revived the 1953 Picasso retrospective. Because the Nahmads had loaned key paintings, Becker “suspected” that they possessed many more and hoped that they could be convinced to show them.

The Nahmads have been dealing in art for five decades, ever since the three sons of a Sephardic banker from Syria left Beirut for Milan, then Paris or New York, London and Monaco, to escape the tensions in the Middle East.

Depending on the source, the Nahmads are said to have accumulated between 3’000 and 5’000 works of art – including more than 200 Picassos, a collection that is second only to that of the Picasso estate.

Most of the works are squirrelled away in a secure duty-free warehouse near Geneva airport. Even the Nahmads had never seen them displayed together before the Zurich exhibition.

But is not so much a collection, the art world says, than a stockpiling of works by specific artists in order to corner markets and influence prices. Hardly an art auction takes place in premier auction houses today without the Nahmad family either selling or buying. With a fortune estimated by Forbes at more than $3 billion – also amassed from currency and commodity trading – they have the financial clout to invest, possess, squeeze or drive markets. Occasionally, they hold on to their goods.

Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Guillaume, 1916, Oil on board laid down on cradled panel, 53 x 37 cm, The Nahmad Collection

“When I first approached the Nahmads, they said that they did not believe that they had a collection. I told them to think about it,” Becker said. Two weeks later and following many internal discussions, the publicity-shy family acquiesced and agreed to produce a core selection of 150 pieces, later reduced to a hundred.

“The selection met the highest museum standards. If it had not, I would have cancelled the show,” Becker said. Furthermore, he discovered what he qualifies as a “Nahmad taste”, with the prominence of some artists and the exclusion of others.

“Miró, Monet, Matisse – The Nahmad Collection” focuses on the five artistic periods between 1870 and 1970 favoured by the Nahmads, including Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Abstraction, Surrealism, and Picasso.

Claude Monet, Canotiers à Argenteuil, 1874, Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm, The Nahmad Collection

Visitors at the opening commented on the odd hanging, as if they were invited to discover crucial developments in art history, rather than the paintings themselves. A row of seven Modiglianis from the artist’s period of greatest artistic intensity in the years before his death in 1920 are lined up like models all sitting in the same chair facing the same window (they probably were).

Picasso’s colourfully riotous interpretations of Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” or Delacroix’s “Les Femmes d’Alger”, all splashed on a single wall, prove to us that, yes, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing.

Becker wants us to understand that a collection “must be regarded as existing in a state of becoming.” What he is celebrating is the commitment of a group of individuals to art.

However, unlike the legendary art merchants who would discover and sustain artists, the Nahmads respond to auction barometers. “It’s the world upside down,” said Sami Kinge, who went to school in Beirut with David Nahmad. Contacted in Paris, where he runs an eponymous gallery in the tradition of the old-style merchants, he said laconically: “The Nahmads only buy and sell.”

Becker admitted that the exhibition, even before it opened, had caused a stir. Accused of becoming an ally to the most influential art dealers in the world, he insisted that his aim is only “to bring something into being.” There was no deal, he emphasized.

He added that the value of the works presented was “above money” and that the exhibition would therefore not influence auction prices any more. “With works of this quality, it’s impossible. If we thought we were turning the screw, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Urs Lanter, Director of the Swiss Art Department at auction house Sotheby’s concurred with Becker’s opinion. “Exceptional works command exceptional prices,” he said, “especially when they enjoy great provenance and when they are important in the art history and the career of the artist”.

Simon de Pury refuted the suggestion that the Kunsthaus could become the backdoor of auction houses. As head of Phillips de Pury & Company, the youngest and some say most dynamic of the three auction houses, he said that some of the greatest art collections in the world are the creation of art dealers. He gave the examples of Ernst Beyeler and Heinz Berggruen who built museums to house their collections, respectively in Switzerland and Germany.

“Museums cannot exist without collectors, and collectors cannot exist without art dealers,” he said, adding simply: “Greats museum show great art.”

What we perhaps learn from this exhibition is that market forces have become part of the fabric of museums. Art collectors donate to reduce their fiscal liability, art dealers take risks and get caught in monetary spirals.

Nobody knows what will become of the Nahmad collection. There are rumors, unconfirmed by Becker, that the present exhibition has inspired the Nahmads to make long term plans, now that they have discovered that they have a collection after all.

Pablo Picasso, Le petit pierrot aux fleurs (Portrait of the artist’s son, Paulo, as Harlequin), 1923/24, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73.6 cm, The Nahmad Collection © 2011 ProLitteris, Zurich

The Nahmads

Joe (Giuseppi), the elder and more flamboyant of the three Nahmad brothers, started his collection by commissioning paintings by Lucio Fontana and Wilfredo Lam in the lively Milan of the sixties. Almost 80, he now lives the life of a recluse.

His younger brothers, Ezra (1945) and David (1947) demonstrated entrepreneurial skills at a very early age and began investing in the stock market at the age of 15. They became interested in art through Joe.

For his first art transactions, David would lend a buyer the money to buy the work of art he was selling, then use the debt as collateral to obtain a loan from the bank.

Ezra’s son, Helly, opened the Helly Nahmad Gallery in London in 1998. He attended the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and has played a pivotal role in the organisation of the Zurich exhibit. David’s son, also named Helly after the grandfather, opened the Helly Nahmad Gallery in New York in 2004. He is often pictured with celebrities.

Art dealers

The legendary pre-Nahmad art merchants who bought directly from the artists (as opposed to auction houses) were Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (Cubism), Paul Rosenberg (Picasso and French Modernists), Sidney Janis (American Abstract Expressionism), Alexander Iolas (late Surrealism, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle), Leo Castelli (Pop art) and more recently Bruno Bischofberger (Basquiat).

The exhibition

‘Miró, Monet, Matisse – The Nahmad Collection’ features more than 100 paintings by Miró,

Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Monet, Magritte and many others. The Impressionist section is dominated by Monet; Abstraction is represented by Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian; Surrealism represented by De Chirico, Magritte, Tanguy, Max Ernst and especially Joan Miro.

Picasso’s “Petit Pierrot aux fleurs” (Harlequin with Flowers), a portrait of his son painted in 1923/24, is considered one of the highlights of the show.

The lavishly illustrated and commented catalogue is sold for CHF 45.00.

The exhibition runs until 15 January 2011.

The Kunsthaus Zurich averages 300’000 visitors a year, with records between 2’000 and 3’000 daily visitors for the major exhibits, including the recent Picasso retrospective.


“Miró, Monet, Matisse – The Nahmad Collection”

Kunsthaus Zürich

Helly Nahmad (London)

Helly Nahmad Gallery (New York)


Joan Miró, Soirée snob chez la princesse, ca 1946, Pastel and gouache on paper, 31.4 x 51.4 cm, The Nahmad Collection © Successió Miró / 2011 ProLitteris, Zurich

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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