NEW YORK – If it weren’t for Jose Mugrabi, the exhibition of works by international pop-culture star Jeff Koons wouldn’t have come to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Mugrabi and his wife Marie are among the world’s most important art collectors and dealers. A few years ago they paid a whopping $58.4 million for Koons’ “Balloon Dog,” setting the record at the time for the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. The value of all the art by Koons in the museum’s new “Absolute Value” exhibition – all from the Mugrabis’ collection – is estimated at $140 million.
But while the Mugrabis were able to attend the exhibition's launch a few weeks ago, the public will have to wait a while before viewing the art: The museum is just one of many victims to the coronavirus, having to shutter for at least the near-future. Koons himself had planned to attend the opening of the show, but cancelled because of the COVID-19 scare as well.
'Until I was 40, I’d never seen art or knew what it was. I invested in Koons because he was already known then'
“For me this exhibition is a milestone,” Jose Mugrabi, 81, told Haaretz at the launch, when the exhibition was still expected to open and run till mid-October. “I’m closing a circle now. I live in New York but I’m Israeli. I was born in Israel. I grew up in poverty. I left the country when I was a teenager with nothing. Until I was 40, I’d never seen art or knew what it was. I invested in Koons because he was already known then, though not the way he is today. I invested in [works by] Jean-Michel Basquiat when every painting of his cost $10,000. I bought works by Andy Warhol for pennies; I have around 500 of them. It’s the same with Tom Wesselmann. I also have large collections of Damien Hirst and Richard Prince.”
What do you do with all these collections?
“Many of the works are in storage, but we also lend them to museums all over the world. It’s a commercial thing. We are behind two to three exhibitions every year. I get something like $2 million for every exhibition I lend collections to. But in Israel I don’t take money. On the contrary, I give. The cost of delivery and insuring this show was $1 million but I do it because Israel is important to me. I will bring other exhibitions to Israel.”
'There are veteran collectors but today you are seeing more and more guys in their 30s and 40s spending $30 or $40 million on a piece of artwork'
According to Tania Coen-Uzzielli, director of the Tel Aviv Museum, “Jose and Marie Mugrabi’s collection allows not only a glimpse of Koons’ beautiful, unique and important works, but also a chance to learn about the significant stages in the artist’s creative development. It’s not self-evident that a collector provides an Israeli museum with a collection of this type. I expect long lines. We will make an effort to open the exhibition to children. The accompanying texts will also be in Arabic.”
While Jose Mugrabi is known in the world of art, the general public knows almost nothing about him. He runs his family's business but it also includes his two sons, Alberto and David, who help him. “I’m still the main man and the one who controls the business," he explains. "Still, slowly but surely in the future I will turn it over to the next generation.”
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For her part, Marie Mugrabi keeps an even lower profile than her husband. “I don’t decide what to buy but if there’s a dispute, they come to hear my opinion,” she says. “It’s not easy to manage such a close family business. I worry about there being peace between everyone in the family. I’m the person behind the scenes. The truth is, I don’t need and don’t want recognition.”
Marie and Jose first met in Brazil; he was 22 years old and she was 14. They met again some years later when she went to visit her sister in Colombia, where he was living at the time.
“He courted me very determinedly,” she recalls. “He’d send letters and telegrams. And finally he ‘got’ me. Jose is a person with a lot of wisdom and he is a real fighter. Both of us have very strong personalities. When I started going out with Jose, he wasn’t interested in art – but I was. He’d laugh at me when I’d take an interest in paintings and he would say: ‘There aren’t going to be any paintings in my house.’ Nevertheless, I bought a painting by an unknown Argentine painter for $300. To this day, I have it in my home.”
Jose: “There is a lot of interest today in the modern art market. It’s not that the entire market is boiling over but there are certain artists who are very much in demand. Just recently, someone wanted to buy a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat for $150 million but its owner wasn’t prepared to sell. With regard to popular artists, the art market has never been better when it comes to prices. If you have a good painting, you will easily find four or five or six buyers. The public auction houses can hold sales where works totaling hundreds of millions of dollars will be sold within a few days.”
Beyond the big names like Warhol and Basquiat, Mugrabi notes, there are less-known artists who are very much in demand and prices for their works have soared accordingly – among them, John Mitchell and George Condo.
“People, in the world of finance, for example,” he explains, “have a lot of money and they go into the art market. There are veteran collectors but today you are seeing more and more guys in their 30s and 40s spending $30 or $40 million on a piece of artwork. The art business has become more and more international. It used to be that the market was mainly American and European. Today, wealthy people from all over the world want to buy art. There is also a lot of interest now from buyers who come from Arab countries; there are more coming from Saudi Arabia than there were in the past. The more interest there is on the part of purchasers, the higher the prices go.”
‘A lot of passion’
In the early 1990s, the Tel Aviv Museum held a show of works by Warhol from the collections of the Mugrabis and of the late Israeli shipping magnate Sammy Ofer. The two men had been friends but had a falling-out. In 2013 the museum launched an exhibition entitled “Wanted,” featuring works by Warhol and Wesselmann that are owned by the Mugrabis. The couple has also donated money and artwork to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, including a sculpture by Man Ray.
What motivates you? How do you select the works you purchase?
“I am an art dealer with a lot of passion. I work a lot according to my emotions and gut feelings. If you don’t have a feeling about a work of art – don’t buy it.”
During the course of his current visit with his wife in Israel, Mugrabi had traveled to Egypt. “For the first time I saw the works of art that were done in the Pharaonic period. It’s unbelievable what they did. The level they achieved 4,000 years ago is higher than most of what was done after that by the Greeks and the Romans. Today, too, works of art don’t approach the level of what was done at the time of the Pharaohs,” he says.
A visit to the Mugrabis’ apartment in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is an extraordinary experience. On the walls are paintings by Basquiat and Hirst, alongside works by Warhol – among them a self-portrait done a year before his death in 1987, a painting of Mao Zedong in a green shirt, images of Elizabeth Taylor, and the famous “20 Marilyns.” The latter, in the owner’s estimation, is the most expensive piece of art in his collection. He has insured it for $380 million but admits that he does not know what its market value is. When he purchased it in 1988, he paid about $4 million; at the time, that was the highest amount ever paid for a work by Warhol. Since then, the price of his works has skyrocketed.
What do you love most in your collection?
“I love all my art. But if I have to choose just one, it would be Warhol. He is the most revolutionary. He created a dramatic change in modern art. If in another 200 years they want to understand what America was, it’s enough to look at his works. From him you can understand the extent to which America influences all of humanity.”
Have you formed personal relationships with artists?
“Definitely. When Wesselmann was alive, for example, I met with him once a month. He didn’t like to be defined as a pop artist. ‘I am an artist, that’s what I am,’ he’d say. But you can’t do anything about it; the experts have defined him as a pop artist and that is how he will be remembered.”
Are you close to Damien Hirst?
“I have about 200 of his works. He’s a super-star, a master.”
What do you think of the inflated prices of art that is being sold these days, and do they reflect the real value of the works or is there a battle of egos going on among collectors?
“You have to make a distinction between the work and its price. There is no connection between them. When the artist was creating, he wasn’t thinking about the price. Everything that happens afterward is purely business.”
What is your opinion of the fact that public museums rely on the generosity of collectors in order to show famous and expensive works to the public?
“That’s the situation today in the market. The museums don’t have the money to by the expensive works of art. A museum purchases three or four works a year. The museum has to rely on the private collections in which there are the great works if it wants to attract people.”
Not in fashion
Jose (Yosef) Mugrabi was born in 1939 to parents who had immigrated from Syria and lived in the Mahane Yehuda quarter of Jerusalem. The family owned a grocery shop. At the age of 16 he travelled to relatives in Colombia, where he began work as a messenger boy and later became a textile importer. In 1982 he moved with Marie to the United States.
Gradually he began to buy works of art, beginning to take a serious interest in Warhol in 1987, when he attended the Art Basel fair in Switzerland and bought four works from the artist’s “Last Supper” series, at $37,000 each. The following year Mugrabi decided he wanted to be an art dealer and left the textile business.
Asked about his feelings for Israel, he says, “For me, today the United States is more for business and Israel is for enjoying life. I am happy in Israel, I visit a lot. I have an apartment in Tel Aviv.”
Do you belong to any political camp?
“I don’t get into Israeli politics. I stay away from it as if from fire. I am proud of my Israeli background. I want to help launch exhibitions in Israel. That’s all.”
Will you bring some of your artwork to your apartment in Tel Aviv?
“I’d be happy to bring more paintings to Israel. The problem is that the taxes and customs duties in Israel are very high, and it doesn’t pay to bring them. There are a lot of Israelis with very big collections but they keep them abroad. If the situation with regard to taxes were like it is in America, there would be a lot more traffic among collectors in Israel and it would also be possible to display many more works here.”
When will you start buying works by Israeli artists?
“I’ve lived in New York for many years. I didn’t have any connection to Israeli art. Today, when I am reconnecting with Israel, I am ready for it. I think I will start with the artist Uri Aran – I saw an exhibition of his in New York. He has very interesting paintings and sculptures. I will go to see more works by Israeli artists and I imagine I will also purchase some.”