It was November 2008 and the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. had finally caught up with the art market. Auction volumes plunged and prices tumbled. While many collectors were too distracted or short on cash, others sensed opportunity -- and went shopping.
One such person was Juan Antonio Perez Simon, the former chief executive officer of Teléfonos de Mexico and long-time business partner of billionaire Carlos Slim, the world’s seventh-richest person.
Perez Simon, 77, snatched a 1936 surrealist painting by Rene Magritte, “Exercices spirituels" for $1.1 million at Christie’s in New York on Nov. 5, hours after Americans chose Barack Obama as their next president. The following day, he got a 1944 Joan Miro painting, "Femmes devant la lune,” for $962,500.
The works -- now worth multiples more -- are part of “A Passion for Collecting: Modern Works from the Perez Simon Collection” at Di Donna Galleries in Manhattan. The collection’s New York debut Wednesday night depicts the entrepreneur as a consummate art lover. Magritte and Miro are joined by other modern masters such as Rothko, Picasso and Dali.
“I’m a passionate art collector who proudly assumes his responsibility of making these pieces available to the art community to enjoy their beauty,” Perez Simon said in a statement provided by the gallery. “Looking at the economic troubles that our world is currently facing, it’s good to bear in mind that art offers us a broad perspective that allows us to obtain a more objective point of view to measure problems in an accurate manner, in its real dimension.”
With just 18 pieces on view, the show offers a focused sampling of a vast, eclectic collection that includes some 10,500 objects of fine and decorative art as well as furniture. The art trove of 3,600 pieces covers 700 years, from 14th century Western and Oriental art to the present day. There’s Italian Renaissance and Flemish School, French Impressionists, artists of the Grand Tour, Latin American art and American Abstract Expressionism.
The collection “constitutes a silent account of my life, a sort of confession, revealing a personal universe which reflects everything that motivates and defines me,” Perez Simon said in a published essay. “At the same time, these works are an irresistible refuge from the world of my senses.”
Perez Simon was a child when his family emigrated to Mexico from the Asturias region of northwest Spain. He studied economics, became an accountant and then a trader. In 1976, he partnered with Slim in the billionaire’s first business, stock brokerage Inversora Bursatil SA. Over the years, Perez Simon was an executive and board member of various companies controlled by Slim’s Grupo Carso SAB, including a stint as CEO of Telmex, which he led until 1995.
Some artworks were previously on display at exhibitions in Madrid, Paris, Rome, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Quebec, Dallas and San Diego. The Di Donna show focuses on the collection’s two main themes: the female figure and transcendental experiences. Most works were acquired in the 1990s at auctions in New York and London.
“There’s a great variety of works by great names that haven’t been seen in a while,” Emmanuel Di Donna, the gallery’s owner, said in a recent interview at the company’s Madison Avenue quarters. “Our goal is showing clients something they haven’t seen anywhere else.”
A group of female bathers populate Paul Cezanne’s “Scene legendaire,” purchased for $1.8 million in 1997. Nude female bodies, some missing heads or limbs, appear in Magritte’s works. Edvard Munch’s 1899 “Summer Night in Studenterlunden” shows couples embracing in a darkening park. Perez Simon bought it for $2.5 million in 1997, and the gallery said it’s currently worth about $10 million.
Perhaps the most bizarre piece is Dali’s 1958 “La ascension de Cristo (Piedad),” depicting Christ as he ascends to heaven arms outstretched, with feet facing the viewer, while the face of Dali’s wife, Gala, looks down at him. Perez Simon paid $2.4 million for it in 1993.
Rothko’s 1959 “Untitled," a paper laid on panel depicting a fluffy white cloud on red background, has been off the market since 2005, when Perez Simon paid $1.8 million for the piece. It’s now worth more than $10 million, Di Donna said.
None of the works is officially for sale, according to the gallery.