Michael & Richard Nagy: Worlds Apart - Art Collector

Issue 33 July-September 2005

Brothers Michael and Richard Nagy deal at opposite ends of the art world and Carmel Dwyer found they’d prefer it that way.

The story of Michael and Richard Nagy, brothers, both art dealers, complete opposites, has the ring of a good yarn to it.

Two men, driven by a family love of the arts are drawn inexorably, almost vocationally, towards the business of selling artworks. Yet they arrive there by vastly different routes. The elder pursues a career in art from a young age and his goal is the international arena, big ticket artworks, the dashing and sometimes knife-edge business of the major auction rooms in Europe and America, wealthy collectors, serious money and serious stakes in dealing in Modern Masters.

The younger takes a more circuitous, in some ways more adventurous route through various career and business choices before finding himself selling art in Sydney, representing contemporary artists, up to his elbows differentiating himself in an overcrowded and fickle market.

And the contrasts don’t stop there. Richard Nagy has been living in London for most of the past 30 years after studying fine arts in Sydney and then with Sotheby’s in London. If he wasn’t a little reserved at the outset, he has cultivated a careful, measured demeanour of a man whose speciality is Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and German Expressionism.

Michael Nagy is ebullient, has a resonant theatrical voice, large smile and organises joint shows with a twist – a fundraiser for Medecins sans Frontieres, a photographic portraiture alternative to the annual Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Archibald Prize. He came to art dealing after he had spent 10 years in the Pacific islands working as a trader for a German corporation. He had been tossing around ideas for what to do when brother Richard asked for some help on The Inspired Spirit – a show of old master paintings at Martin Cook’s old gallery in Jersey Road (1986).

MN: “I started helping him out on that and then he brought out the Modern British exhibition [1988] so I got more and more involved. By then I had opened DC Art with David [Cook, now with Christie’s]. Richard always knew it was the direction he was going. For me it was a bit more something that came about. And it’s become a passion and a way of life.” Surprisingly for two such different people they share a number of views. Each believes he has landed where he should be and neither envies the other’s life or business. Well, not much, anyway.
RN: “He has to deal with artists.”
MN: “Yes exactly – living breathing artists.”
RN: “I have a well-worn adage – ‘dead artists without widows’. I can understand the excitement of what Michael does – but don’t want to do it. The excitement of bringing somebody on and having a symbiotic relationship with an artist, working together developing the market, being able to advise an artist and form a relationship where you can perhaps be the closest person to their work who is objective. That side of things can be very exciting and I’ve never had that. I collect a little bit, buy a little bit of contemporary art for my own edification but I’m not really tempted.”
MN: “The thrill of working with someone like Shona Wilson – she’s so original in thought and process and technique and talent. To put that work up on your wall and put a show of that on is absolutely terrific. Some of the work Richard handles – that’s what I would be jealous of. That would be a wonderful thing. But I get that vicariously through Richard.” The two have had several projects together over the years – of varying success. One of the last, and least successful was a show of Gustav Klimt drawings that Richard brought to Australia in 1999 and showed, for sale, at Michael Nagy Gallery, then in Potts Point. Despite hoards of people coming to look at the works, not a single picture sold to an Australian buyer, institutional or private, and both brothers were hugely disappointed. The only buyers were tourists. Richard remarks dryly that half of that show is now in a museum exhibition in Paris. Between the insurance and freight costs associated with that show and the tremendous work involved in sourcing the pictures from around the world – and persuading the owners to sell – Richard is reluctant to venture into the Australian market again on that scale.
RN: “I put it down to ignorance and lack of confidence. I certainly understand that people are reluctant to commit themselves to purchasing artists whose market they don’t understand. I suppose what disappointed me is that there wasn’t much curiosity about it. “There’s probably more that we could do together and should do together. But I got a little bit tired of putting on shows out here because I’d been told 20 years ago, by what were old hands then, that it is a waste of time trying to educate the Australian art buyer and I kicked against that and kept bringing shows out and wanted to prove them wrong.” Fire in the belly is a family trait. Their grandparents brought their father to Australia from Budapest in 1938, moving out of Eastern Europe before the Nazi troops moved in. They left in enough time to bring their worldly goods, furniture and fine art, that became part of the environment the Nagy children and grandchildren grew up in. The influence was critical to the children.
RN: “My grandparents had furniture from the Wienerwurkschtadt and so I had that awareness and started looking at these artists at a young age. When I started dealing there were three elderly men who dominated that market and one women who was the granddaughter of one of the pioneers in the area. It seemed common sense to get more involved in it.” Michael and Richard’s father became a doctor but kept the family interest alive in his children to such an extent that not only did both sons end up in the art business, the youngest daughter, Dominique, also trained in fine arts and now works at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Global and local shifts in prices, competition and availability of stock have changed the way both brothers work in recent years. Michael Nagy Fine Art moved to Jersey Road Woollahra nearly three years ago. He has made a number of changes to his business, reducing the number of artists and the number of exhibitions each year.
MN: “I have reduced the number of artists I represent from 28 to 15. It’s much better and I do a better job for the ones I represent today. This is a good number. I’ve reduced the number of exhibitions also. Putting them on for a bit longer and leaving more time between exhibitions – leaves time to do a better job and sell stock. “I am constantly looking at the business and asking how can I make it a better business. It’s constantly evolving. “I enjoy the dealing side and probably will try and do more dealing. There’s a lot of pressure to get exhibitions up and get it right and get it marketed and get it sold and to meet the needs of the artist.” For his part, Richard has recently closed Dover Street Gallery, which he opened in 1989, and taken the business back home to Bayswater. Most of his business takes place outside of London and he travels regularly to various parts of Europe and to both the East and West Coasts of the USA. The German and Austrian artists he specialises in do not have much of a market in the UK.
RN: “I also handle expressionist modernism – Picasso, the Fauves; I’m handling a major Modigliani painting at the moment, a major Picasso painting. An Australian collector just bought a fantastic work by Otto Dix – a work on paper getting on for $3-$4 million.” Steep price rises everywhere, they agree, have changed the way people like them work. A lot of buyers they say, are pushing prices up quickly because they are buying with their ears, not their eyes.
RN: “The contemporary market has been picking up pace at a remarkable rate which is quite shocking in some cases. An artist like Marlene Dumas that I was trying to buy three of four years ago for around $US100,000 for a painting. A comparable work today would cost about $US2.5 million. The record price for a Marlene Dumas painting is now about $US3.3 million. It was kicked off by Saatchi buying a few of her paintings, bidding very competitively. “It’s like Maurizio Catellan – six years ago I underbid a Catellan at Christies for $US270,000. That work is coming up for auction again soon and is estimated at $US1.2-1.6 million. Now I think the record price is in excess of $US3.1 million.”
MN: “It’s not so runaway here – but it’s so faddish in Australia. From one season an artist can be in favour and prices skyrocket for a few sales then they disappear. “It’s such a subject thing. I’m not doing the hard sell on people – I want people to love the works when they buy them.”

And so it goes. The brothers chat, compare notes, find each other slightly curious. Much as it has always been.

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