The art dealer Felipe Grimberg has accumulated one or two cocktail stories in his decades-long life between his native Bogotá and his adopted home Miami – from his childhood in Colombia to his friendship with Fernando Botero. He told a number of these stories in his book Sell Boteropublished in 2015.
Now, with more than 30 years of experience in the art trade, Grimberg picks up where he left off with his second book. Botero 500. The founder of Felipe Grimberg Fine Art in Miami, Grimburg is working at the peak of his career. As the title of his forthcoming book suggests, Grimburg has now sold more than 500 works by Botero. He is also a collector with an impressive personal collection of contemporary art.
We recently spoke to Grimburg about his checkered career, the works that have escaped, and his words of wisdom – and warning – for aspiring art dealers.
tell me about your trip How and why did you become an art dealer? What brought you to where you are today?
My first inklings of art and the art world were more of a family affair. Several times a year we would visit a relative’s house, which was literally crammed with art. The walls were covered and sculptures covered the house and grounds. It turned out that she was one of the first real collectors of Colombian art in the 60’s and 70’s. i was sold I loved admiring art, listening to passionate conversations about art, and watching people enjoy and critique art. I knew then and there that art would always be the engine of my life.
I was a teenager when I asked my father to buy art for our home and I envisioned building art collections in a beautiful setting. As I became more aware of the economic realities of life, I began selling and buying art from home. Life told me it was the right choice. It’s in my blood I ran a few businesses for my father’s clients, selling t-shirts and even selling shrimp from a local fish farm to local restaurants.
So that was the beginning and what got me to where I am today. I realize how privileged that sounds, but trust me, it’s been a long road with ups and downs. Still, I woke up with a smile every day. Because I go to work absorbed by a world of artists and carried by a tidal wave of happy connections and people to be introduced to. I was and still feel like a perpetual scouter for recommendations and always on the lookout for collectors willing to buy or sell. At the same time, I conscientiously cultivate the relationships that have developed over so many years. Many of these connections have, I’m happy to say, developed into genuine friendships.
What are the most important lessons you have learned in the art trade over the past 35 years? What advice would you give your younger self?
Given the story I just told you, the obvious answer is to always follow your passion. But I would definitely put up a warning: make sure you keep tabs on how the world is changing. We have seen the evolution from collecting art to investing in art. We have seen art become a commodity traded by the wealthy few. We’ve seen the commerce evolve from galleries to digital shows. It is imperative for the younger me to realize that change is part of the world and that you always have to have your finger on the pulse.
You moved to Miami from Bogotá in 2000. Why? How has Miami changed in the past 22 years?
I moved to Miami as a private art dealer. The biggest reason for the move was that Miami was quickly becoming the crossroads between North and Latin America when it came to art. I felt like a pioneer, a trailblazer, making a small contribution to the development of Miami as a major arts hub, while also introducing my compatriots to art and artists climbing the career ladder here in the United States. It was exciting and so much fun.
In Miami I felt like a puppeteer working the strings behind the curtain. I’ve toiled quietly and ethically behind the scenes, often bringing in other partners who trusted my advice to help me with the purchase. I haven’t exactly made any money from my small markups, but my clients have been thrilled to have access to the work of internationally renowned artists. Miami has certainly grown up. It’s also grown on me. I feel like I’m a different person now than I would have been if I’d stayed in Bogotá. Being in Miami puts you on the art world map. It’s certainly not New York, Paris or London, but for me as someone who is constantly building bridges to Latin America, it’s the ideal place to develop my business.
Was there a work of art over the years that was particularly difficult to let go of?
There were two works by Jean-Michel Basquiat that I bought with two investors. We paid a total of $814,000 for the two works: Quality meat for the public and Arroz with chicken. They have been loaned to the Whitney Museum in New York for Basquiat’s retrospective. One of the partners lost confidence in Basquiat’s prospects, so we sold it at a loss. Today, each of these pieces would cost around $35 million. I know that sounds like it’s all about the money. But you have to look at the pieces. They are beautiful.
What was your most memorable experience in the art world?
The memories of the first works of art I was allowed to own as a little boy in Colombia. And in 2004 when I took Sir Dennis Mahon to the Prado Museum to verify the provenance of a Caravaggio that a customer had brought me. The stakes were high, although the outcome was devastating for the value of the piece in question. The overall experience of seeing Sir Dennis in action combined with the use of advanced technology to determine a piece’s provenance was incredible.
And last but not least, the incredible privilege of being with Fernando Botero of all the moments I’ve had over the years. There is no more fascinating character. His way of speaking, his European demeanor and his incredible discipline in his work and in public. A visit to Pietrasanta, where he works with his foundries during the summer, is certainly high on the list of unforgettable experiences.
In 2015 you published your book Sell Botero, which deals with your career and your relationship with Botero. Can you tell me something about the book and your relationship with the artist?
Sell Botero is the story of my journey as a private art dealer and the deep passion for art that has carried me through life. The common thread running through the book is my pursuit of Botero’s work and the relationship I was able to develop with him. It was a roller coaster ride like no other. My relationship with him as a dealer, as a formidable role model in the world of international art and finally as a friend. The book is about that journey. Now at the age of 90, Botero is at the pinnacle of his accomplishments, recently setting a world record at Sotheby’s for one of his monumental statues. I am currently working on a second part on the same topic. It is called Botero 500. As the title suggests, I have now sold well over 500 works by Botero. I am honored to be his friend and will continue to treat and encourage his work.
They also have an extensive personal collection. What was the first work you bought?
Having grown up in Colombia and surrounded by the local scene, it’s not surprising that my first purchases were Colombian artists in the 1980’s. To name a few: Alfredo Guerrero, Maria De La Paz Jaramillo, Fernando Botero, Lorenzo Jaramillo, Dario Morales and Enrique Grau.
What was the most expensive addition to your collection?
As expected, the most expensive was a 1964 Botero, Mrs. Rubens, which I bought for $50,000 in 1987. That was a lot of money in 1987. But I remember it clearly.
Are there one or two works that you consider highlights of your collection?
A work by Sean Scully and more recently works by Eddie Martinez and Katharina Grosse.
If you could own one work of art in the world, what would it be?
It would be Boating Party Lunch by Pierre-August Renoir, currently in the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC
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