Is Anybody Buying Art These Days?

by Eric Konigsberg
The New York Times
March 1, 2009

On Monday, Sept. 15, mere hours after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in New York City, Sotheby’s was throwing open the doors of its London headquarters for the most extravagant sale in the auction house’s history. The sale, of 223 new artworks by Damien Hirst, brought in more than $200 million — nearly 10 times the total receipts of the previous record-holder for a single artist, a 1993 auction of 88 Picassos that reaped around $20 million. It was a level of consumption that, particularly when viewed against the concurrent collapse of the financial-services industry, almost immediately acquired a nostalgic air, the last gasp of the art boom.

In the audience sat the men of the Mugrabi family — the patriarch Jose and his sons, Alberto and David — New York art dealers for whom the evening was not so much a transitional moment as simply another high-stakes day at the office. The Mugrabis own what is believed to be one of the largest and most valuable private collections of art in the world. By their estimate, it includes more than 3,000 works. They have built the collection over the past 25 years, since Jose, an Israeli-born fabric merchant who raised the family in Colombia, moved his wife, Mary, and their two sons to America and got into the art business full time.

The core of their collection is a staggering 800 works by Andy Warhol — “easily the biggest Warhol collection in the world after ours,” says Tom Sokolowski, the director of the vast Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh — and roughly 100 each by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tom Wesselmann and George Condo. At 69, Jose remains largely interested in artists with connections to the Pop movement. Alberto and David, who are 38 and 37, respectively, have been accompanying their father to auctions since they were teenagers, and in recent years they’ve been deputized to seek out younger — or at least living — artists. It is at their instigation that the family now owns about 150 Hirst pieces. They have also bought and sold numerous significant works by Richard Prince and Jeff Koons.

The Hirst sale constituted a vast repository of the formerly Young British Artist’s themes and tricks, greatest hits reissued with just a note here or there to distinguish them from their predecessors. There were skulls, butterflies, paintings of colored dots that corresponded to pharmaceutical codings and, of course, animal and fish corpses suspended in formaldehyde inside giant glass vitrines. Among these were a tiger shark, a calf with 18-karat-gold horns and hooves, a zebra and a unicorn — which was actually a foal with a resin horn.

A number of the tanks were plated with gold and were so heavy that the floors of Sotheby’s had to be reinforced to withstand the tonnage. The auction house’s printed estimates for the pieces ran from roughly $200,000 for small works to more than $23 million for some of the installations, with the fat part of the bell curve somewhere in the low seven figures.

The Mugrabis were given seats in the second row and arranged themselves according to family protocol. Alberto, the more outgoing and incautious son, was beside Jose (“He likes to sit next to our dad, and I let him,” David said). David, dispassionate and analytical, was between his wife, Libbie, and Alberto.

They were not assigned paddles, because, as David explained, “the auctioneer knows where to look for us.” Gazing across the audience himself, though, David barely recognized anybody. “Except I think I see Bianca Jagger, and I think I saw Russell Simmons .”

The family was not selling any of its holdings at the auction, but the Mugrabis’ fortune is so tied to their pet artists — like Warhol and Hirst — that they were rooting for a series of bidding wars. “We’re not looking for bargains here,” David said. “Because it’s very unwise as invested as we are in Damien to hope the sale doesn’t do well. We want to keep the prices up. We’ll try to get some things, but we’d like to see other collectors bidding high.”

For the Mugrabis’ preferred artists, the family doesn’t merely operate in the art market; it is the market. “They’re so invested, they’re like the casino, not the gambler,” said the gallery owner Francis Naumann, a friend. What threatens them at an auction is not the presence of other aggressive bidders but cautious bidders.

“If it’s good for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, it’s good for us,” Alberto said.

The family admitted to some unease about the front-loaded order in which the pieces were being auctioned. Of the 56 lots on the block the first night of the sale, the two highest-valued by far were coming early. These were the tiger shark (Lot No. 5) and the calf (No. 13). “I’d rather have, in my opinion, a little more momentum before the formaldehyde,” David said.

The first four lots sold quickly, for more than their high estimates. The brothers put in an early bid of £380,000 (about $685,000 at the time) on a red-and-white butterfly painting they’d been eyeing but gave up long before it was sold (for £590,000).

Then came the shark. Alberto started trading text messages with Hirst, who was apparently playing snooker at a pub but eager to receive a play-by-play of the auction. Jose worried a string of black beads with his fingers and chewed gum.

Bidding began at £2 million but quickly stalled at £3.2 million — below the low end of the house’s estimate, which was £4 million to £6 million. The auctioneer, Oliver Barker, looked beseechingly at two long tables, which were lined with perhaps three dozen Sotheby’s employees, each manning a telephone to field remote bids from collectors across the globe. But none of them proffered a bid.

“Three million three hundred thousand pounds — want to come in?” Barker said, repeating the challenge for nearly a full minute. He did not want to let the piece get away so cheaply.

“Not good at all,” Alberto said. Jose stared wordlessly at Barker, then turned his head to look around the room.

But before the hammer went down, a remarkable thing happened. Jose sat up and began waving his hand, to get the auctioneer’s attention. Then he motioned toward one of the phone attendants, who he could see was still talking to somebody on her line.

Barker kept on going, and a new bidder came in. There was another lull — the piece almost sold at £3.7 million — but an auction-house staff member on another phone could be heard successfully coaxing her bidder.

Once the low estimate was reached, a couple of other would-be buyers bid £4.5 million, £4.6 million, £4.7 million and beyond — in no time, all the way past £8 million.

Jose caught the eye of his friend Gabriel Safdie, a Geneva-based curator of private collections who sat nearby, and winked. “You see?” Safdie said quietly. “It was almost dead at 3.2.” The hammer finally landed at £8.5 million — which, once Sotheby’s commission and taxes were added in, translated to a £9.6 million payout, or about $17.2 million. The room broke into applause.

Alberto received a text message from Hirst and smiled. “Damien made one of these symbols,” he said, sticking out his tongue to demonstrate.

And from there, the auction was a cakewalk — more than $200 million over the next 24 hours (there was a day session the following afternoon). The Mugrabis bid on a few pieces for which they ended up dropping out early with a swat of a hand or a shrug at the auctioneer. Toward the evening’s end, when the brothers decided they didn’t want to go home empty-handed, they exchanged a knowing glance, and Alberto kept himself in the running for one of the last pieces long enough to win it — a small canvas with cigarette butts affixed — at £121,250.

“A souvenir,” Alberto said.

A few minutes earlier, Jose had been talking about the incongruity between the day’s financial news and the auction frenzy, and ventured an interpretation: “When the empires fall — Roman, Greek — all that is left is the art.”

THE OVERWHELMING majority of the Mugrabi collection — of their 3,000 works, all but about 200 at a time — resides out of public view, in two warehouses they rent, one in Newark and the other near Geneva. Alberto said it was the only practical solution for a collection of its size, particularly with large pieces like the Hirst tank installations. “Sadly, the whole thing has to be dismantled and drained,” he said. “The sharks and the sheep need to be refrigerated.”

As private dealers, the Mugrabis do not own a gallery or represent artists. They buy or sell works in about 100 art auctions annually, nearly one every three days (sometimes, with smaller auctions, they bid via phone). And the rest of the time, they buy and sell through galleries and fellow dealers.

“We’re market makers,” Alberto said. “You can’t have an impact buying one or two pictures per artist. We’re not buying art like Ron Lauder — just to put it on a wall. We want inventory.” He equated inventory with liquidity: “It gives you staying power.” In the commodities sector, the analogue would be making a run on a precious metal — in order to manipulate the price.

Over the coming months, the Mugrabis may lose the ability to make that claim. After all, the art market has visibly begun to ebb. Prices — and interest — dropped at the November and February auctions in London and New York. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s big November contemporary sales in New York, nearly one-third of the 138 pieces went unsold. Christie’s total receipts of $113.6 million came in at half the low estimate of $227 million. Sotheby’s totaled $125 million, falling well short of its low estimate of $202.4 million. Totals for the contemporary artworks sold by Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in February were £43 million, down from £250 million one year before. The auction houses have been laying off staff, and galleries in Chelsea have been shuttered. Dealers who will be at the Armory Show, which is New York’s pre-eminent contemporary art sale and which will take place from March 5 to March 8, have drastically reduced their expectations from what they have come to refer to as “2007 and 2008 levels.”

Nobody knows yet what the future business of art will look like, but price escalations on the order of Richard Prince’s series of nurse paintings — $50,000 in 2003, $300,000 in 2005, $1 million in 2006 and $8.4 million in the summer of 2008 — are most likely not in the picture. (In November 2008, a nurse painting with an estimated value of $5 million to $7 million was bought at auction for $2.9 million.)

The Mugrabis, however, insist they will be able to continue doing what they do, regardless of how the ground may have shifted beneath their feet. “We’ll become more like collectors and less like dealers now,” David said. “More buying, less selling. It’s like Warren Buffett said — a down market is when you find the bargains. Not that much that is special has come up yet, but when it does, we’ll be there.”

One morning a few weeks ago, Alberto wandered into his father’s office in New York as Jose was on the phone with an art dealer in London. In Spanish, Jose was agreeing to purchase a group of five Basquiat paintings for about $9 million and outlining the payment schedule ($5 million upfront, with the remainder to come in half-yearly installments by 2011).

“Yes, yes, buy them all,” Jose said in English. His assistant came in with café con leche on a lacquer tray, and he put his fingers to his lips to signal to her to get his superslim cigarettes ready.

When Jose hung up, Alberto explained that the week before, they freed up the cash for this purchase by arranging to sell a different Basquiat of theirs, for around $2.5 million, and a Wesselmann painting for $3 million. “So there’s the $5 million,” Jose said. “You never know what will come up. I saw photos of the pictures, I talked to the guy for two minutes, I buy them.”

“The Basquiat we sold, we had three that were practically the same — all car crashes,” David, who had joined them, said. “We bought this one in ’89 for $308,000 and now we sold it for more than $2 million.”

Before the economic downturn, the Mugrabis said that the value of their collection was approaching a billion dollars. “If it’s two-thirds or three-quarters of what it was, just like everything else, so be it,” Alberto said in November.

“Art will hold its value better than the rest of the things, better than real estate, better than funds,” Jose claimed, just before the London auctions in February. But now he estimates that works by the “top tier” of artists are worth a lot less what they were a year ago. With so much of their money tethered to the market values of a small group of artists, the Mugrabis hardly own a diversified portfolio. If, for whatever reason, they needed to raise a large sum of cash in a hurry, they could find themselves being forced to sell low.

The Mugrabis give the impression that, no matter how well they have played the market up to now, their compulsion to buy and sell art is not entirely rational. Back in the early 1990s, when Jose was still making his ascent, he got “a little overextended” purchasing art, he said. Asher Edelman, a financier and art dealer who is acquainted with the Mugrabis, said that about five or six years ago, Jose told him over lunch that he was “nervous” about being overinvested in art. “I told him, ‘Look, why don’t you sell off some of your collection, stop buying, and you can lay low for a few years?’ and he said that was a good idea,” Edelman recalled. “Then he kept on buying.”

During the November auctions in New York, the Mugrabis put 30 pieces up for sale, and Alberto said that half of them — including a Basquiat with a high estimate of $2 million — went unsold. They also bought a Wesselmann painting for nearly $1 million, $300,000 above its high estimate. “We’re addicts,” Alberto said. “That’s what addicts do.”

THE WAY THE MUGRABIS built their collection owes a strategic debt to Charles Saatchi, the English advertising man turned art patron. In the 1980s, Saatchi was moved to buy up multiple works by expensive artists. “Most collectors were satisfied to have, say, one great David Hockney piece, and one great Cy Twombly and so on, but Saatchi was the first to realize there were a dozen great Twomblys, and he could own all of them,” said Richard Polsky, an art dealer in Northern California and the author of “I Bought Andy Warhol,” a book about the contemporary-art market. But Saatchi did this with many artists, and his focus remained on their best works, whereas the Mugrabis are indiscriminate when it comes to their preferred artists. “They’ve bought up everything Warhol — even the stuff that was considered junk,” Polsky said. “And a lot of the junk has turned out to be very valuable, too.”

Their business model today puts the burden of decision-making not on taste but on whether a piece they’re considering buying will aid their ability to affect the scarcity of the artist’s work. Once, in 2006, Polsky said, he put up for auction a Warhol “Flowers” painting in which he owned a stake. “The estimate was $1 million, but the Sotheby’s auctioneer made it clear that the Mugrabis would be in the audience and they would like to see it get $1.5 million,” he recalled. “And that was almost exactly what it ended up selling for.” The Mugrabis didn’t purchase the piece. They just bid against the eventual buyer and ratcheted the price upward.

“That’s a good strategy in a rising market,” said Jeffrey Deitch, a gallerist who has bought and sold many paintings from and to the Mugrabis over the years. “In a down market, we’ll have to see how it works.” More art that was until recently considered hard to get will likely come up for sale, making it more difficult for the Mugrabis to create artificial scarcity.

There were always criticisms of overpaying. At an auction in New York in 1988, Jose paid nearly $4 million for Warhol’s “Twenty Marilyns,” which consists of a repeated iconic head shot of the actress against an orange background. At the time, it was the record price for a Warhol — more than twice the estimate — and Jose hesitated. “I had to push his hand in the air to make the bid,” Alberto recalled. “I was 18 years old. He was upset with me afterward.”

“I was upset but I was not upset,” Jose said. “People were making fun of me. The guy from the Figaro called to ask me if I knew what I was doing. I told him, ‘I felt like I was buying a piece of America.’ ”

Just last year, Jose said, members of the Abu Dhabi royal family offered the Mugrabis “several hundred million dollars” for a group of works that included the painting. “It was a very attractive offer, but we decided not to,” Jose said. “As long as I am here, it will be in my home.” Technically, the brothers added, nearly everything in their collection is for sale. “If we don’t want to sell a picture, we ask like three times what the estimate would be,” Alberto said.

On the circuit they travel, Alberto and David are regarded as princes of art and commerce, but culture was an acquired taste in their household, something they grew into alongside their father. Mary Mugrabi said her husband was at first deeply unmoved by her interest in art. “I bought him his first picture 30 years ago,” she recalled. “He said: ‘Why? What is this for? Who cares?’ ” Previously, on their honeymoon in Madrid, she took Jose to the Prado. “He said, ‘Who cares?’ ” Mary said. But when he became interested, she added, “he moved so fast, I could not keep up.”

That began in 1982, when Deitch, who was then an art consultant at Citibank, talked Jose into purchasing a Renoir landscape for $121,000, as an investment. “He knew my account,” Jose recalled. “He started to insist that it is good to buy the Impressionists. I said, ‘O.K., buy me anything you want under $100,000.’ They insist on sending me the catalogs. Eventually, I begin to pay attention.”

Jose’s parents were Syrian Jews who ran a grocery store in Jerusalem. In 1955, when he was 16, he went alone to Bogotá to live and work with relatives. “The business of my uncle was shmattes,” he said. He began as an office gofer and did everything from selling cloth to running errands. In 1961, he started his own wholesale fabric business and eventually became an importer.

“By the end of the ’70s, the business became one of the biggest textile merchants in Colombia,” he said. “At the same time, it became very dangerous to live in the country — a little kidnapping, you have to go with a bodyguard, you have to have an armored car.” By the time his sons were around 12 and 13, he said: “It became risky to send them to school. So we go to America.”

Jose struggled — first in Miami, then in New York — to establish his business, which set in motion the decision to throw his time and resources toward his new hobby. “In Colombia there was no fashion,” Alberto said. “My father would go to Italy and bring back last year’s fabric and nobody cared — the women wore dresses for three days in a row. The business model” — selling out-of-date fabric — “didn’t work in America. So then it became art, art, art.”

In 1987, Jose was at Art Basel, the annual collectors’ fair in Switzerland, when he walked by the booth of a German dealer who was selling Warhol paintings. “I liked the pictures,” Jose said. “I told a friend and he said, ‘This is late Warhol’ — not so important. I said: ‘I don’t know what you mean. The paintings impact me.’ The feeling I had — before, it was nothing. Then, at that time, I feel something.”

Jose bought all four paintings in a “Last Supper” series for $37,000 each (he estimates that each is worth $4 million to $6 million today), then quickly dismantled his nascent but not-insignificant collection — by then it includedMark Rothko , Salvador Dalí, Yves Klein and Honoré Daumier — to buy Warhols, Basquiats and Wesselmanns (“His three revelations,” David Mugrabi called them).

“He has a good eye, but to say that this is the artwork I am going to put all of my money into, basically overnight — it took such confidence,” his friend Gabriel Safdie said. “He had the belief, the capacity to assimilate, compute all the inputs, purify it, get rid of the fat and keep the caramel. He was buying Basquiat for $8,000 a picture, this man.” He has since sold Basquiats for as much as $6 million and $8 million.

In keeping with the janitor-to-fabric-king arc that everybody in the family relishes, Jose loves to talk about the market trajectories of artists he didn’t invest in. “In the 1960s, you could buy Warhol for $3,000, and you could buy Richard Lindner for $30,000,” he said, chuckling. “Now a Lindner is worth $200,000.”

As the economic fortunes of Lindner and Warhol suggest, the art business — the selling of taste, of authenticity, of goods that can be deemed by turns rare, innovative or irrelevant — is a squishy industry, even in the best of times. The Mugrabis cannot know how much the market valuation of different works by different artists will rise or fall, or whose work will rebound more quickly, or not at all, after the art market reaches its bottom. Might Damien Hirst turn out to be the Richard Lindner of our times?

“I remember Alberto stopped by the museum four or five years ago — it was the first time he’d ever seen it — and I was giving him a tour,” said Sokolowski, of the Warhol Museum. Sokolowski was struck by Alberto’s appraisal of a “Last Supper” painting. “ ‘Oh, that’s beautiful,’ ” he recalled Alberto saying. “ ‘If I were you, I’d put an insurance value of $15 million on that.’ I said, ‘Oh, Alberto, you can’t do that.’ But to them, it would become sort of a self-fulfilling science to say everything is worth what you want it to be.”

THE MUGRABI MEN ARE DARK, economically built and strikingly angular in their features — especially Alberto, who looks as if he could have emerged from a Picasso canvas (“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” period). They operate out of a small office on Park Avenue at 57th Street. There are walls of bookshelves stacked floor to ceiling with artists’ monographs and auction catalogs, but the doorway plaque and their e-mail addresses bear the name of Jose’s textile business, Fashion Concepts Incorporated. When others in the art world talk about their moves and their taste, it is always under a collective umbrella — as in “The Mugrabis don’t want it” or “That was bought by the Mugrabis.”

It’s rare to see any of the three Mugrabi men without at least one of the other two. They take breakfast together at the Four Seasons Hotel, or lunch at the restaurant in Lever House, the landmark midcentury office tower where Alberto and the building’s owner, Aby Rosen, have commissioned and displayed a number of major pieces (including a 2007 Hirst installation for which they paid $10 million). In London, they rendezvous at Aspinall’s, Jose’s Mayfair gaming club — though Jose prefers that Alberto play roulette at a different table. “He only likes his privacy when he’s losing money,” Alberto joked on the night before the Hirst sale, as each of them frittered away thousands of pounds on each spin of the wheel.

The sons talk about the art world as if it were the only place where any of them was meant to function — as if other environments were not only too plain but also rigged against newcomers (and art, at least, was rigged for them). It can sound like a vestige of their third-world — if wealthy — upbringing. Alberto said that he and David went to somewhat-obscure colleges near Boston — Bentley and Babson, respectively — because they were “the only schools that would take us. We didn’t know anybody. We hadn’t been in this country that long.”

David often chides his older brother for not having married yet and for being a bit of a playboy. (David has two young children, lives on Park Avenue and goes to bed early; Alberto has lavish dinner parties at his Gramercy Park apartment and employs full-time household staff.) “My father is able to pretend not to like a picture as much as he does, in order to get a better price,” David said one day. Then he pointed at Alberto and said, “Him?” David shook his head.

“Alberto is much more emotional, and I admire that,” Jose said later. “But sometimes you can’t buy a picture because you don’t have the money. Sometimes we don’t have the money, but Alberto still buys.”

David does credit Alberto for saving him from his former career as a financial broker-dealer. “I would call Alberto every morning when I got to work,” David said one day at his parents’ Trump Tower apartment. “I was staring at a computer, and he was going to three-hour lunches, going to look at pictures, going to Paris. It was just much more enjoyable.”

Jose, who was in the room, smiled at his son. “Much more,” he concurred.

The Mugrabis’ approach to art — to the extent that it supports a specific characterization — combines a sort of immigrant aesthetic with immigrant entrepreneurship. Jose described the artists they’re fondest of as representing the “true American commercial culture” (Basquiat, Prince, Koons and even the Englishman Hirst) or “what America gives to the rest of the world, like Coca-Cola and jeans” (Warhol). They almost never share their collection with museums or galleries without charging a fee. “But not much — like one or two million dollars,” Alberto said. Last year, when Jose learned that a sculpture by the Cuban duo Los Carpinteros he’d just donated to the Guggenheim was requisitioned to storage, he bought it back. “From now on, if I make a gift, I tell them, ‘You have to expose the art,’ ” he said.

The sheer volume of the family’s collection strikes some people as something that is in opposition to the public good. “It’s not that they don’t love art,” Charlie Finch, a columnist for, said. “They’ve just been hogging everything. Come on, let someone else in on the game.” It is often pointed out by fellow collectors that a number of patrons who own work on the level of the Mugrabis, like Saatchi, Eli Broad and Don and Mera Rubell, have opened museums to show off their art.

What others see as hoarding, the brothers attribute, at least in part, to their father’s wary nature. For years, the sons endured a sort of apprenticeship during which only their father could make decisions. “Now both of us can buy what we want,” Alberto said. “But we talk everything through before we do it.”

In 1998, Alberto paid around $250,000 for his first Hirst piece, a laboratory cabinet filled with medical supplies. “My father saw it and said, ‘What is this disaster?’ ” Alberto said. “He wanted to chop my head off. I said: ‘Don’t worry about it. This is great.’ He said, ‘No, this is not great.’ He hated it so much, he made me sell in a year. It’s probably worth $3 million now.” (He gave that figure in August but says it’s more like $1 million today.)

“He’s always asking us: ‘Who’s the next Warhol? Who’s the next Basquiat?’ ” David said. “But he’s skeptical of whatever we bring him.”

One such artist, George Condo, said his relationship with the family began in the late ’90s when a mutual friend brought Alberto to his studio to look at a painting of a jazz-album cover. “I remember him saying, ‘You’ve got to meet my dad,’ ” Condo recalled. “I think he put a reserve on it, and his father wouldn’t let him buy it. But a few years later, they started buying my pieces in depth.”

Condo considered it a pretty big stamp of commercial approval: “They’re prestigious collectors. To see your own paintings in one of their apartments, hanging next to a beautiful Basquiat — it feels great.”

WHEN THE DAMIEN HIRST auction ended, Jose rushed to the pulpit to high-five the auctioneer, then departed for a quiet dinner. David and his wife did the same. That left Alberto heading into the night through Mayfair “to find Damien and celebrate.” Alberto returned to his hotel, Claridge’s, where Hirst has been living for much of the past year, but was unable to locate him. One of Hirst’s assistants appeared in the lobby and informed Alberto that the artist was with his children.

Alberto took a seat in the hotel lounge, where a party formed around him: Diane von Furstenberg, the fashion photographer Sante d’Orazio, friends of Hirst’s who had been with him, playing snooker, when the “scores” from the auction came in. There were shout-outs to others who walked by: Ron Wood, Jack Black, Ben Stiller and William F. Ruprecht, the chief executive of Sotheby’s, who entered making exaggerated, open-mouthed winks.

“In one hour, 71 million pounds,” he said.

“They said it was Black Monday — well, not for Damien,” Tony Shafrazi, a gallerist from New York, said. “It was magic, it was. It was rainbows. This proves that art is more important than money.”

“Damien Hirst should be running Lehman Brothers,” Alberto said.

“People hear my music and they say, ‘Oh, that’s your passion,’ ” said Antony Genn, a friend of Hirst’s who used to be in the band Pulp. “I say, ‘Forget that.’ ” Music, Genn said, “is my life,” and added, “Damien Hirst came from nothing, and then, with aplomb, he goes and changes the world.”

“Ant! Ant! You’d rather not eat than give up your art,” Alberto said to Genn.

It got late, and Alberto headed upstairs to bed before the entire crowd dispersed. “Tomorrow, I will get up, and I’m going to Sotheby’s for the day sale,” he said. “I want to buy a few more Damien pictures.”

Eric Konigsberg is a reporter for The New York Times and the author of “Blood Relation.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company