Inside David Nahmad’s Private Art Collection

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David Nahmad is an art dealer who purports to have the world’s largest private collection of paintings by famed master Pablo Picasso. And this remains the case even after he let go of one of those paintings, a decision that was the recent subject of an interview with the Associated Press.

Nahmad last year, let go of Nature Morte, a 1921 Picasso oil-on-canvas painting that Nahmad says he doesn’t specifically remember his rationale in buying: “We bought so many Picassos now, I don’t remember the specific reason…It’s the smallest painting that I have.”

“So many” is around 300 and Nahmad’s reason for getting rid of the Nature Morte was a noble one. He was approached by the organizers of a charity raffle, TV producer Péri Cochin and art historian Arabelle Reille, who were looking to sell about 200,000 tickets at about $113 each. The cause? Clean, drinkable water for underserved residents of Cameroon, Madagascar, and Morocco. 

But Nahmad didn’t simply give the painting away – instead, the raffle organisers decided to pay Nahmad for the painting, rather than push for a free donation, an effort that they hope will encourage other collectors or galleries to also part with Picasso works for future charity raffles. So how did David Nahmad become the private collector he is today?

The Story Behind David

It’s in Italy 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 infectious he got his brothers Ezra and David interested. David 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 and 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 stock collection. 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. 

The Nahmad’s Worth

The Nahmads’ strategy is simple: they treat art as a stock to be gambled and traded on. Unlike other art dealers who cannot afford to hold more than a few dozen paintings at a time before selling them, they buy a lot of art, hold it in a warehouse for a while, and then sell it for far more than they paid for it. 

Ezra Nahmad, on the left, with his brother David. Photo: Getty Images

Jeffrey Deitch, a former dealer and current director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, once described the Nahmads as “like a major brokerage firm in the stock market“, adding: “The market needs a force like this to function.”

The Nahmads have created an art warehouse, a 15,000 square feet duty-free building near Geneva Airport. It’s been estimated that their collection includes approximately 4,500 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and other pieces by such luminaries as Renoit, Matisse, and Picasso. David’s collection boasts of over 300 paintings of Picasso exceeding a whopping amount of $1 billion.

NEW YORK – OCTOBER 1: (ITALY OUT, NY DAILY NEWS OUT, NY NEWSDAY OUT) Helly Nahmad and David Nahmad pose in front of a Picasso painting at the Helly Nahmed Gallery in the Carlysle Hotel on October 1, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images)

The Nahmads also set their own prices and decide when to sell. Unlike most other art dealers, they buy and sell much of their inventory at auction houses and use auctions to maintain their inventory.

Billionaire art dealer David Nahmad poses in front of a seascape by artist Nicolas de Stael at Nahmad’s home in Monaco.

Nahmad is married and lives between New York and Monaco where he owns a sumptuous apartment in one of the most sought-after addresses for the rich and famous, with spectacular Mediterranean vistas. Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti grace the home and works by French cubist painter Fernand Léger and other artists decorate Nahmad’s walls.

He says his artworks are as dear to him as children and that parting with them is difficult.

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