Rami El Nimer is general manager at First National Bank (FNB) and an experienced art collector. He chatted with Executive about how his art collection fed on history and identity, the opportunities and risks associated with banking on art in the Middle East and his plans to build up FNB’s art assets.
When did your passion for art begin?
My passion for art started at a very early stage when I used to visit my ancestors’ house in Nablus, Palestine. As a young man in 1967 I used to visit my family there. There was a small museum that had our family artifacts, arms, armors and documents. Until the age of 16 or 17, I used to collect small artifacts concerned with the Ottoman Empire — like books or coins. And still today I keep them. Then I went to school in Switzerland where I met a lot of art dealers, and there I expanded my knowledge. But it was always Islamic art, particularly Ottoman art, that fascinated me.
Can you talk us through your art collection?
There are three parts. Firstly, since I’m of Palestinian descent, I collected anything to do with Palestine: books, postcards, stones. I have historical documents from 1620 until 1850, and when I couldn’t get them out of Palestine during the Intifada, the family decided to smuggle them for me. The second part is the Ottoman art, which I collected for beauty but also for national heritage. Our descendants lived under Ottoman rule, so it’s fascinating for me. My collection there consists of different areas, from manuscripts to calligraphy to furniture. The third part of my collection reflects my willingness to help contemporary Palestinian artists worldwide, trying to buy their works. My daughter and I are setting the scene for them in Lebanon; hopefully we’ll show that Palestinians are people with identity, with culture, with deep artistic roots; not just a bunch of refugees living in camps, or terrorists. For me this is a duty.
Is there an investment side to your art collecting?
I never approached art as an investment. But with time, apparently, I made a great investment. The [return] percentage was huge because I collected in the right period and the right areas. But I cannot afford today to compete with international collectors worldwide, museums who have unlimited means, especially in the Arab world.
Do you think there is a Middle Eastern contemporary art bubble in the Arab world now?
Previously, the Arab world was away from this movement, due to the political and economic situation for the past years. [Now] there’s a lot of new wealth and of course the younger generations are more interested in contemporary and modern art than, let’s say, Islamic art, which is becoming too rare and too scarce and also very expensive. With the new wealth emerging and no experience, there is a lot of manipulation in the art business. But value is irrelevant because it is a supply/demand issue. Of course some people will abuse this and try to promote artists that won’t necessarily make it in the long run. Now we [are seeing] some extremely exaggerated figures, which will discourage people. But when they are discouraged the market will go down to more normal levels. Then serious art lovers will start buying more because they are not necessarily very rich people.
What is your take on art funds that guarantee safety and greater returns?
I was thinking of doing one myself a few years ago. But then the war in 2006 happened so I decided not to proceed with it. It was too risky. It is much more speculative than you think, because in art you have trends. If you bought in China at the right time, a work of art which cost you $10,000 or $15,000 was worth a million dollars 10 years later. But this is a stroke of luck. If you’re going to buy in an academic, not a speculative manner, it takes a much longer period of time.
In financial stock markets, you analyze the company’s performance at the end of the year; if it goes down 50 percent you can exit. There’s liquidity in it. The art market is not very liquid; you will sit on hundreds of works of art and you might not sell them. What’s a ‘blue chip’ today is not a blue chip tomorrow. If one fund contains $10 million — like the ones in the region — it’s something, but if you’re talking 100 funds each at $50 million, the art has to perform so there will be more manipulation.
What about banks and other institutions building up their art collections?
There are a lot of institutional art collectors in Europe, the United States and China. They have art departments. They’re not looking for short-term properties. This is better than having pure business funds. Bank Audi is one of the banks in Lebanon which were pioneers in collecting art. I started doing it myself [for FNB]. Most of the works are mine; I exhibit and lend them to the bank. I decided to buy every year certain works of Lebanese artists for the bank, but I haven’t set the foundations yet. It takes time and maturity. Now we have different priorities than an art collection as a bank. I don’t want to use the funds of the bank for art; my shareholders will not be very happy.
What’s your advice for new collectors?
I would say ‘be careful’. You have to study your work, not try to color-coordinate your paintings with your walls. Stay away from decorators, go with your instincts, but also educate yourself in art and train your eye. First you have to love the piece, do your research, and then ask yourself whether you can afford the art and whether its price is justified. At the beginning I collected only decorative pieces in Ottoman art which are not pure, in the sense that there’s a lot of influence in them. So now I’m more selective in choosing pieces. You always learn something new.
What do you have your eye on right now?
Ottoman is my passion. I’m trying to buy a 16th century textile, which is very rare. I’m negotiating it in Portugal with my dealer. Ottoman art is much scarcer [than contemporary] and buying it at the right price, at the right moment, is not easy. You have to practically hunt it; it’s a nice feeling.