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The Art Dealer Families Who Run the New York Art Market

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Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine;/AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Up in the art-market stratosphere, where the price estimates for art auctions start in the tens of millions, billionaires trade around pieces by the same few artists — Koons, Picasso, Basquiat — and build each other’s wealth. This is practically a closed circuit: Dealers buy up the supply of an artist’s work, selling it for whatever price they see fit. Collectors bid on pieces at auction just to keep the value of their own inventory high.

It helps, then, if an aspiring dealer to the 0.1 percent is born into a family that already owns a bunker of blue-chip art, which is why many of the biggest dealers today are family businesses. And in New York, much power is concentrated in just five families — whose fate now rests in the hands of their second-, even fifth-generation heirs. Some of these art-world nepo babies are staying the course, founding their own galleries or taking over their parents’; others have been embroiled in legal trouble and messy divorces. Few are scandal-free.

Origin story: During the economic crisis of the 1980s, the Israeli-born textile importer Jose Mugrabi took advice from a Citibank art consultant (and future big-time dealer) Jeffrey Deitch to invest in bargain-priced art. Mugrabi took to Andy Warhol in particular, whom he saw as a symbol of American empire. The family is now worth an estimated $5 billion.

Reign: 30 years; two generations

Market cornered: Warhol. The family owns an estimated 800 works by the artist.

The heirs: Jose’s son Alberto “Tico” Mugrabi got his start in the art business at 18; his older brother David Mugrabi joined after a stint on Wall Street.

Scandals: David and Libbie Mugrabi’s tabloid 2019 divorce involved allegations of adulterous skinny-dipping, a brawl over a Keith Haring sculpture, and a rumored $100 million payout.

Origin story: The sons of a Syrian banking family in Italy, Ezra and David Nahmad got their start flipping art as teenagers in the 1960s. Today, the billionaire family treats its collection of at least 4,000 works like the stock market, buying and holding — sometimes for decades in a tax-free Geneva warehouse — then selling when prices are high. “Monet and Picasso are like Microsoft and Coca-Cola,” David once said.

Reign: 70 years; two generations

Market cornered: Picasso. The Nahmads own an estimated 300 works by the artist, worth at least $1 billion — the largest collection outside the Picasso family.

The heirs: David’s eldest son, Hillel “Helly” Nahmad, runs a gallery in the Carlyle Hotel; Joe Nahmad has a contemporary-art space across the street. Daughter Marielle, a socialite who married banking scion Edmond Safra, shows more interest in philanthropy than the art business. (Confusingly, Ezra also has two dealer sons named Helly and Joe Nahmad in London.)

Scandals: In 2013, Helly Nahmad — the American one — pleaded guilty to operating a $100 million gambling ring frequented by Leonardo DiCaprio and members of the Russian mob. He was sentenced to 366 days in prison and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. Donald Trump later pardoned him.

Origin story: Before Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, there was Franz Levai. The Austrian son of an antique-dealing family, Levai, who anglicized his name to Frank Lloyd, cofounded the first multinational gallery empire, Marlborough, starting with a branch in London. At its peak, it would have additional branches in Rome, New York, Montreal, Toronto, and Zurich. (The remaining branches are now in New York, London, Madrid, and Barcelona.)

Reign: 75 years; three generations

Market cornered: Abstract expressionism. In its heyday, the gallery represented every major figure from the movement, including the painters Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Philip Guston.

The heirs: Max Levai, great-nephew of Lloyd, became president of Marlborough New York in 2019 — only to be fired a year later when the London branch of the family ousted him and his father, Pierre. Today, Max runs The Ranch, an indoor-outdoor gallery space in Montauk.

Scandals: Many. Frank Lloyd lost the Rothko estate after a major lawsuit in the 1970s. (Pace Gallery eventually scooped it up.) In 2020, Max sued the gallery for $10 million for allegedly taking advantage of his father’s battle with COVID-19 and other pandemic-related issues to stage its “coup.” The gallery countersued, accusing the Levais of fraud, defamation, and “an unfounded sense of entitlement.”

Origin story: The longest-running and most scandalous art dynasty in the world dates back to the 1870s, when an Alsatian tailor named Nathan Wildenstein started trading Old Master paintings on the side. Today, his great-grandson Guy Wildenstein leads the multibillion-dollar empire.

Reign: 150 years; five generations

The heirs: In addition to Guy running the operation, his daughter Vanessa Wildenstein directs their London gallery Wildenstein & Co., while his son David Wildenstein, Guy’s heir apparent, is expanding the family’s real-estate business.

Market cornered: Old masters and impressionists, especially Monet — Daniel Wildenstein, Guy’s father, authored the artist’s catalogue raisonné.

Scandals: Many. In 2011, French investigators accused Guy of receiving art looted by Nazis, some of which, he said, could have been an “oversight” of his late father’s operations. Prior to and since, there have been separate open, closed, and reopened tax-fraud cases against him by French authorities. In 1999, Jocelyn Wildenstein, better known as “Catwoman” for her extensive plastic surgeries, revealed offshore accounts during her divorce from Guy’s brother Alec Wildenstein, winning her a reported $2.5 billion settlement.

Origin story: In 1960, a 22-year-old MFA student named Arne Glimcher opened a gallery in Boston called Pace. Three years later he moved it to New York, where he staged early shows by the likes of Jean Dubuffet, Agnes Martin, and Robert Irwin. In 1980, Pace sold Jasper Johns’s Three Flags, becoming the first gallery to sell a work by a living artist for more than $1 million. Now it’s one of the biggest and most influential contemporary art spaces in the world.

Reign: 60 years; two generations

Market cornered: Pace has held on to many of the lucrative estates of artists it has worked with in the past, including Sol LeWitt, Chuck Close, and Louise Nevelson.

The heir: After years veering between careers in science and art, Arne’s son Marc Glimcher took the helm as Pace’s CEO in 2011.

Scandals: In 2020, in the wake of the protests over the murder of George Floyd, Artnet News reported that Marc infuriated employees by hiring his own kid, Lilleth, to oversee diversity at the company. The next year, two top executives left Pace after the gallery investigated allegations of misconduct against them. The Glimchers have taken pains to avoid controversy in 2010, Arne dissolved the gallery’s 17-year partnership with the increasingly embattled Wildenstein & Co. But it’s hard to work in art without things getting ugly.

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Kapwani Kiwanga to represent Canada at 60th Venice Biennale

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Kapwani Kiwanga, who grew up in Brantford, Ont., and studied anthropology at McGill University before moving to France for graduate studies in art, is based in Paris.Bertille Chéret/Handout

Kapwani Kiwanga, the Ontario-born artist who lives and works in France, will represent Canada at the 60th Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Canada announced Thursday.

Kiwanga will create work for the Canada Pavilion in the Biennale’s Giardini park where the international art exhibition opens April 20, 2024. Her participation will be curated by Gaetane Verna, former director of Toronto’s Power Plant and now director the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.

Kiwanga, who grew up in Brantford, Ont., and studied anthropology at McGill University before moving to France for graduate studies in art, is based in Paris. Born in Hamilton, she is of Tanzanian and Scottish ancestry.

Starting with social and historical research, she uses video, performance, sculpture and especially installation to look at power structures and colonialism. She has created installations that investigate the manipulative elements of prison architecture; in another major series, she has recreated the floral arrangements that can be seen in the 20th-century photographs of independence ceremonies or military parades in African nations.

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In the Giardini, she will be provided with a strong backdrop for her themes: The park features national pavilions for all the traditional colonial powers. The Canada Pavilion, a shell-shaped modernist wood-and-glass structure built in 1958 and renovated in 2018, is a small building sandwiched between the larger German, British and French pavilions.

Kiwanga, who was chosen by a panel of Canadian and U.S. curators assembled by the National Gallery, is already an international star. In 2020, she was awarded the Prix Marcel Duchamp, France’s top art prize, and in 2018 she won Canada’s Sobey Award for an emerging artist.

She has exhibited widely in Europe and, in February, the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto will unveil the first major survey of her work in Canada. That exhibition will feature five new commissions as part of her research into the politics of botany.

In Venice, the 60th Biennale will continue to Nov. 24, 2024.

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Sussex Drive art gallery showing photo exhibit of the ‘hidden beauty’ of convoy protesters

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A press release from photographer Paul Ozzello and Art + Galerie calls the images “both striking and controversial,”

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A Montreal photographer who says he found “hidden beauty” when he visited last year’s convoy protest in Ottawa is exhibiting his portraits of protesters at a Sussex Drive gallery, coinciding with the occupation’s first anniversary.

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A press release from photographer Paul Ozzello and Art + Galerie calls the images “both striking and controversial,” while inviting viewers to see the exhibit and “engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue about the issues it raises.”

Jean-Pierre Bex, manager of Art + Galerie, and one of its artists, said in an interview that the exhibit of Ozzello’s photos is not a political gesture.

“We are taking absolutely no political stance on this show whatsoever,” Bex said. The show is entitled “Fringe.”

Bex acknowledged that the occupation “was a polarizing event for sure.” But he contended that Ozzello’s photo have artistic merit. “At the end of the day, they’re really nice pictures, really well presented,” Bex said.

Bex said it was “more of a coincidence” that Ozzello’s exhibit will fall on the anniversary of the occupation. He said he had planned on the exhibit happening sooner, but Ozzello needed more time to prepare his work.

Ozzello said he came to Ottawa soon after the trucks arrived and stayed for two weeks in a motel, drawn to document the event. He returned a few more times until the protesters were forced to leave.

“I search for hidden beauty… that often goes unnoticed, and when I came to Ottawa, I found a similar beauty in the spirit of those Canadian truckers,” said Ozzello in response to emailed questions.

“I know talk of the truckers can be very triggering to some and I hope my less critical viewpoint of the protest isn’t a complete turn-off,” Ozzello said. “This is coming from someone double-jabbed who sewed several thousand masks for my doctor friends at the beginning of the pandemic.

One of Paul Ozzello’s photos that will be on exhibit.
One of Paul Ozzello’s photos that will be on exhibit. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

“There was something romantic to seeing these primal men and women getting together to defy the government and stand up for what they believe, and I wanted to convey this more human side of the truckers,” he continued. “They had this quixotic grunginess that I love to photograph.

“When one of them saw my old Polaroid camera, he asked me to take a photograph of him – then took out a Sharpie and signed the print,” Ozzello said. “And that’s how it all started.”

He said he was apprehensive about meeting people who were violent extremists, but that wasn’t his experience.

“I eventually started talking to many of the truckers and realized that these people really weren’t much different from myself,” Ozzello said.

“These were just ordinary Canadians that were tired of being confined, afraid of what long term side-effects of the vaccine might be, that just wanted to return to a normal life.”

Other photographers and media documenting the convoy were not welcomed as warmly by protesters. Soon after the protest began, the Canadian Association of Journalists drew attention to troubling incidents.

“Journalists have received death threats littered with racist epithets. Others have been spat on and verbally and physically harassed. In another case, the windows of a CBC/Radio-Canada news cruiser were broken,” said a Jan. 28, 2022 press release from the CAJ.

Veteran Ottawa photographer Paul Couvrette, who lives and works in Centretown, said he too visited the convoy protest several times out of curiosity and that he took “thousands” of photos.

“I had at least two or three people threaten me,” Couvrette said. “I did have people tell me, ‘Put the camera away, delete all the pictures.’ I’ve been around enough that that didn’t bother me.”

He added that after his first few visits to the protests, he returned with a large Canadian flag on his backpack and was greeted as an ally. “Suddenly people went, ‘He’s one of us.’ It was an us-and-them thing.”

“I disagree with 99 per cent of what the convoy people wanted,” Couvrette said. But he called Ozzello’s sympathetic portrayal “valid.”

Said Couvrette: “The photographer is going to focus on the human side and there is a human side.”

A collection of Paul Ozzello’s photos that will be on exhibit.
A collection of Paul Ozzello’s photos that will be on exhibit. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

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Free ports are places with the ultra-rich store their art antiquities to avoid tax and duties

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Free ports are warehouses where the 0.01 percent stash their collections of “art, antiquities, wine, gold, jewels, and other priceless artifacts and never pay tax on them,” says Wyatt Cavalier in his newsletter, The WC. One warehouse in Geneva holds more than $10 billion in art, never to be seen by the owners, who would rather avoid paying taxes on their Velazquez than look at it. Similar dragon hoards are in Luxembourg, Monaco, Singapore, Zurich, Beijing, and Delaware.

They exist outside the formal jurisdiction of any country; the clients remain anonymous and the assets are kept a secret.

And though you may have never heard of free ports, they’re a big deal in the art world:

  • 28% of artists and collectors have used a free port;
  • 42% of dealers and brokers say their clients use them.

Why use a free port?

If you buy a $10m painting from a dealer in France and want to bring it to the US (or anywhere else, really), you’ll have to pay import duties as high as $2m – $3m. Storing it in a free port gets around this. For around $1,000 per month, you’ll never pay those import taxes on your van Gogh.

Moreover, when it comes time to sell your piece, you can skip sales tax via the free port’s informal economy. The crate moves from your unit to the buyer’s unit, and the money moves from her Swiss bank account to yours.

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