A Jew of Syrian-Lebanese origin, David Nahmad is the greatest collector of Picasso’s work

Forbes estimates at $3 billion the value of works acquired by the art dealer and collector, one of the leading players in the art market.

Ezra Nahmad, on the left, with his brother David. Photo Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images

The 2020 Forbes Billionaires List included two Lebanese-Monegasque art dealers and collectors, David and Ezra Nahmad, whose fortunes are estimated respectively at $1.8 and $ 1.5 billion. Their collection, stored in Geneva’s tax-exempt freeport, is said to comprise over 4,000 works by famous artists, including Matisse, Léger, Miro, Monet, Renoir and Rothko but also 300 Picassos, worth at least one billion dollar. The Nahmad brothers are the largest private owners of Picasso's paintings (outside the Picasso family).

Who are the Nahmads? It all started in November 1947. In response to the vote on the partition of Palestine at the United Nations, the Jewish quarter and the great synagogue in Aleppo (dating from the 9th Century AD), which for centuries housed the famous Codex, were set on fire. Riots caused deaths and injuries, and members of the community that had lived in the city for two thousand years were forced to flee in small groups, leaving behind their entire heritage after the Syrian government banned Jews from selling their properties.

"Many Aleppans headed to Lebanon, among them Hilel Nahmad, his wife Mathilde Youssef Safra, and their children Denise, Albert, Joseph, Jacqueline, Nadia, Evelyne and Ezra. They settled in Wadi Abou Jamil, where David, the future great collector, was born a few days later," Nagi Georges Zeidan, a historian who is writing a book on Lebanon's Jews to be published soon, told L'Orient Le Jour.

Hilel, the founder of the Nahmad and Beyda bank in Aleppo, had lost everything. In Beirut, he started from scratch, opening a currency exchange office on Khan Chouni Street, near Allenby Street.

"His job was to buy Sanadat (letters of credit) at three-quarters of their value, then negotiate them at full price, after their expiry date," said Zeidan, noting that the families who left Aleppo in a hurry only carried their identity papers but no passports. Many of them were never able to obtain a Lebanese residency permit or nationality.

"However, thanks to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iranian passports were issued by his embassy in Beirut to allow them to travel. These documents did not give them the right to go to Iran or to be registered on a consular electoral list," Zeidan explained.

In the 1960s, Hilel Nahmad and his family, with their Iranian passports in their pockets, moved to Milan where they obtained Italian nationality. Hilel died in the Lombardy region in 1985.

Self-made-Art Buff

It’s in Italy that the story of David Nahmad begins. His older brother Joseph, a businessman in Milan, invested all his earnings in art. His collection included works by Italian artists, such as Lucio Fontana, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Marino Marini, Giorgio de Chirico but also the Belgian Magritte and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam. His passion and enthusiasm for visual art was so contagious that he transmitted it to his brothers, Ezra and David. The latter abandoned his engineering studies to devote himself entirely to art, opening his own gallery in Milan in 1968.

David quickly built a network of collectors who put their trust in him. Great Parisian gallery owners of the time entrusted him with masterpieces: Aimé Maeght sent him paintings by Braques and Mirós while Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler sent him artworks by Picasso which were sold in Italy. While the interest of amateurs in the sixties was focused on cubist art, David was among the first to be interested in the later works of Picasso (produced during the last twenty years of the painter's career).

This artistic period turned out to be particularly rich and even became the central pillar of the Nahmad collection. It was strongly influenced by Picasso's meeting with his wife and only model, Jacqueline Roque, and lasted from 1952 to his death in 1973. Ezra and David were business savvy. In an article dated August 15, 2013, Le Monde said “as children in Beirut, they sold English novels to American sailors; as young men in Milan, they sold T-shirts to football fans at the San Siro stadium, printed in a hurry at half-time, when the results of the match became clear. "

For them, art was an attraction and a financial safe-haven. The two brothers took advantage of the collapse of the art market in the early 1970s and early 1990s to acquire artworks in bulk. At an auction of Kandinsky's works organized by Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet in 1971, the Nahmad bought half of the paintings. “They're like a big stock brokerage firm; the market needs a force like this to operate," New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch observed.

At the center of the art community

Over the years, the Nahmads built up a stock and a private collection where Picasso occupies a special place. David’s eldest son Hilel, now runs the Helly Nahmad Gallery at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. The younger son runs the Nahmad Contemporary gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. His nephew Joe runs a gallery of the same name in London.

Since Joseph's death in 2012, David has taken the helm of the Nahmad clan. Dividing his time between the United States, Monaco and France, he is considered "an exceptional player in the international art market." According to media reports, he owns several thousand works, most of them signed by the great masters of the 20th Century, and which he often lends to museums around the world. In Paris, the public was able to admire pieces from his collection at the Louvre, the Center Pompidou, the Grand Palais and the Musée d'Orsay where he exhibited Pablo Picasso's La fillette à la corbeille fleurie (1905), acquired for $115 million. In 2011, part of his impressive collection of Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Miro, Mondrian and Kandinsky were exhibited at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. In 2013, he exhibited some of his collection again in the museums of Sète, including works by Corot, Courbet, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, but also around sixty impressionist works. In the same year, 116 paintings and drawings by Picasso were exhibited at the gallery of Grimaldi Forum in Monaco.

How did the family make their billions?

To understand how the Nahmad's built their fortunes, The Art of the deal - Forbes reported, for example, that during an auction organized by Christie's at the Rockefeller Center, a Picasso oil painting from 1955 that David Nahmad had acquired in May 1995 at Sotheby's for $2.6 million, found a buyer for $30.8 million. A Modigliani bought previously for $18 million sold for over $30 million. Christopher Burge, honorary president of Christie’s New York, reportedly said: "The Nahmads have sold more works of art than anyone alive." Excluding the auctioneers, this statement is probably true.

The second element of their strategy is to buy and hold. Other art dealers cannot afford to hold more than a few dozen paintings at a time before selling them. The Nahmads have created an art warehouse. Their treasures occupy 15,000 square feet of a duty-free building near Geneva Airport. As for knowing what's inside, David Nahmad replied: "It's a secret! But according to sources in The Art of the deal - Forbes, the warehouse contains between 4,500 and 5,000 works of art, worth between three and four billion dollars, including 300 Picassos, worth alone about a billion dollars. It is the largest private collection in the world.

The Nahmads also set their own prices and decide when to sell. "The only reason we sell is to add to our collection. We use the proceeds from the sale of a canvas each time to buy a better one, "said David's son, Helly.

Unlike most other art dealers, they buy and sell much of their inventory at auction houses. They thus use auctions to maintain their inventory. For example, at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, they raised prices by buying four paintings by the Italian Lucio Fontana. "We have 100 Fontana in Switzerland, so if you pay a lot for an auction, in theory the other 100 are worth more," said Helly. "David Nahmad's collection is exceptional and he himself is a living encyclopedia of 20th Century paintings," confirmed a fellow merchant to L’Express. "But the man is also a real trader, who buys for the cheapest possible only to resell at the highest price. With his incredible stock, he has the power to choose when to keep artwork and when to put it back on the market. Often, it is he who determines the fluctuation in rates."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-LE Jour on the 5th of May)

The 2020 Forbes Billionaires List included two Lebanese-Monegasque art dealers and collectors, David and Ezra Nahmad, whose fortunes are estimated respectively at $1.8 and $ 1.5 billion. Their collection, stored in Geneva’s tax-exempt freeport, is said to comprise over 4,000 works by famous artists, including Matisse, Léger, Miro, Monet, Renoir and Rothko but also 300 Picassos, worth at least...