The story of how brothers Ezra and David Nahmad amassed what is regarded as the most important private collection of Picasso paintings outside of the Picasso family is less of a story of rags to riches than it is about successful dealers who became passionate collectors. Born in Beirut, they were teenagers when their family moved to Milan in the 1960s to join their brother Joseph, a successful businessman who loved to collect art. Instilled with their family’s entrepreneurial spirit and surrounded by the Milan cultural scene, Ezra and David quickly saw an opportunity to bring art from Paris to Italy. Mentored by the great Paris art dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler – who took a liking to them after they were the sole buyers at his exhibition of Cubist painter Juan Gris in Rome – the brothers were the first in Italy to be given access to Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky and Leger. Their drives between Paris and Milan were so frequent that on one trip the brothers famously tied a large Picasso to the roof of their car, only to arrive in Milan and find that it had fallen off – they drove back to find it lying on the side of the road.

As the first to bring the important Cubists to Italy and by later opening a gallery in New York, the Nahmad brothers were visionary in their global perspective of the art world. Their attitude to collecting, however, was less avant garde, being as much inspired by aesthetics as by market values, in the tradition of the great collections of the 20th century. When their Milan gallery closed during the recession of the 1970s and the brothers based themselves in Monaco, they made the decision to acquire only the best paintings with a view to building a permanent collection. “Little by little, they began to realize that selling the paintings of the masters brought them less pleasure for they had become attached to the work,” says Helly Nahmad, the son of Ezra. “Their desire to sell took over only when it was a question of buying an even more important work. From that, their vocation to collect and to enrich the Collection was born.”

While the art world always knew the importance of the Nahmad collection – various family members continue to sit in auction rooms around the world, doing more bidding than selling – the exact scale of their collection remains a mystery. A glimpse into their holdings was given in the 2011 exhibition Miro, Monet, Matisse – The Nahmad Collection at the Kunsthaus in Zurich. And now the jewels in the Nahmad crown are revealed in a new exhibition at the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco.

Monaco Celebrates Picasso – which is timed to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of the artist – includes 160 masterpieces, 101 of which are taken from the Nahmad’s collection of “about 200 works” by Picasso. What is so extraordinary about the pieces on display is how they cover the majority of Picasso’s artistic periods, including Picasso’s version of Delacroix’s Femmes d’Algers and a whole series devoted to The Painter and his Model. “I think that rather than having a painting that represents every period, it’s also interesting to see twenty paintings from the same week,” says Helly Nahmad. “Because at that moment, as you see the series developing, you get inside the artist’s head, inside his soul, as if you were watching him painting in his studio.”

The Nahmad holdings of Piacsso include works of extremely rare quality which is telling of the effort that went into building the collection. Indeed, the curator of the exhibition Jean-Louis Andral, suggested to Helly Nahad that Picasso is a constant reference to the Nahmad family in their relationship to art. His response: “Yes, he shaped us with his idea of inventiveness and hard work: his way of living, thinking, and his enormous intelligence-they’re an example for us, just like his simplicity, especially towards the end of his life.”

Rich in works never shown to the public, the Nahmad collection at Monaco reveals more than anything the family’s passion for Picasso. “Picasso is the capital of the art world, the capital of the art history, the heart of the art scene,” explains Helly Nahmad. “For us it’s as if he was our mentor, someone who’s done everything. He’s a whirlwind of creative power. He’s the ultimate in art and he’s ultimate for us.”




Helly Nahmad, son of Ezra Nahmad, on the spirit of his family’s collection:

“At a time when my father Ezra and my uncle David were selling the first Picassos in Italy, their approach as art dealers was evolving at the same time as their respect and love for the artist and his works was growing….When one has the privilege to have a Picasso in one’s hands, everything changes…It’s how one understands the great artists, Picasso first of all. An idea dominates: if one sells, it’s good; if one doesn’t sell, it’s even better. Little by little, they began to realize that selling the paintings of the masters brought them less pleasure for they had become attached to the work. Their desire to sell took over only when it was a question of buying an even more important work. From that, their vocation to collect and to enrich the Collection was born.”


More info:

Monaco Celebrates Picasso
12 Jul until Sep 15, 2013
Grimaldi Forum, Monaco
http://www.grimaldiforum.com/en/cultural-events-monaco/agenda/monaco-celebrates-picasso-262#.UfjT-o5JVSY