Collector Martin Margulies: “I often can’t buy today – the prices are really amazing” – 71Bait

Few people today can say that they attended the 1973 Sotheby’s New York Scull sale: a pivotal moment in the post-war art market, when 50 of the best Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art paintings of the Taxi mogul Robert Scull’s collection got unexpectedly high prices. But Martin Margulies – to his friends Marty – was there, and the sale was the catalyst that launched the real estate developer on his art collecting journey.

“I saw all these fancy people selling, all dressed up, and I was like, ‘Wow, these are smart people spending real money. I better follow their example and be interested in art. . . and that’s how I became addicted to it,” says Margulies, who is now in his mid-80s and speaks from his Miami office. He was born and raised in New York but is long established in Florida; Luxury skyscrapers, which he developed with his company Bellini, characterize the landscape of South Florida. Dressed simply in a buttoned shirt, with his hair cropped close, Margulies listens intently to the questions, waits impassively for a moment – ​​and then responds with a warm smile and his New York accent still intact.

Martin Margulies with sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1980 when the artist was in Miami to install “Man” in the grounds of the Grove Isle Sculpture Garden

A granite obelisk in the shape of a bone stands upright on some grass

“Man” (1978) by Isamu Noguchi at the Grove Isle Sculpture Garden in Miami

For Margulies, the Scull sale was a revelation. He began collecting from there, initially prints by Picasso, Miró and Chagall, and also purchased sculptures for a real estate project he was working on in Florida. He installed 55 large-scale works at the Grove Isle Sculpture Garden, featuring works by artists such as Isamu Noguchi and Michael Heizer. “Not many people were buying sculptures at the time,” says Margulies. “Traders saw me coming and said, ‘Here comes this guy from Florida again.’ But audiences loved it, they booked tours just to see it.

“I still love these sculptures. But I didn’t just want to be known for sculpture, I thought there had to be something to painting as well.”

View of a gallery in a warehouse with several artworks: three statues of human figures, brown translucent sacks hanging from the ceiling, abstract painting and other installations in the background
The Warehouse is a 50,000 square foot facility in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood that hosts a new series of exhibitions each year based on the Margulies collection © Josh Aronson

So he branched out and focused on two areas – pop art and abstraction. Today he has 4,000 works in two distinct collections: one at his home in Key Biscayne and the other at his nonprofit space, The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, a 50,000-square-foot building in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood that he opened in 1999. He bought his first photograph – a Thomas Ruff – in the 1990s, and three years later he decided to start collecting photographs as well. “But a lot is stored away,” he says with a wry smile. “I know because I have to pay so much insurance!”

Black and white photograph of the front of the barber shop with stripes around the entrance

Barber Shop, New Orleans (1935) by Walker Evans © Courtesy of The Margulies Collection. Photo: Nabil Moo

The Warehouse is open seven months a year, from October to April, and each year hosts a new series of exhibitions based on the collection. “We never borrow works,” he says. “Every year Katherine [Hinds, his long-term curator] and I’m crafting upcoming shows based on our collection.” This year, the Warehouse is showing photographic works documenting the Great Depression The bitter years; New media, with Doug Aitken, Susan Philipsz and Jennifer Steinkamp; plus an exhibition of works by new European and American painters and sculptors.

I wonder why he collects photography – which is so often figurative – but at the same time prefers abstraction in painting. “We show photography as a way to get younger people to come into the warehouse,” he replies, adding with a grin, “I’m a very unpredictable person, I like a lot of things – like the very experimental 1930s Bauhaus works also.”

He definitely has energy and a desire to communicate with visitors. He personally conducts hour-long tours of the collection and travels to New York “every month” where he has an apartment in Tribeca. There he “stomps” through the streets, visits galleries, auction houses and museums; He is also a voracious reader of magazines, books and catalogs about art and artists.

A woman applies glue to oil-painted canvas in a workshop

The Lotus Village Shelter for Women and Children in Miami has received millions of dollars in donations from Margulies © Lotus Village

What we haven’t discussed so far is his philanthropy. The Lotus Village Shelter for Women and Children in downtown Miami is close to his heart – and recipient of many millions of dollars of his donations. “We take care of women and children, 520 a year; We give them a home for a year – we have the nicest homeless shelter in the United States,” he says proudly. He’s also given extensively to museums like the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, though, as he says, “he doesn’t serve on any boards.”

But he had strong and very vocal views of the local Miami Art Museum, which moved to a new $131 million Herzog and de Meuron building in 2013. Margulies was a primary opponent of the plan, spending $20,000 to place full-page ads in local newspapers expressing his opposition. “I believed, like many others, that a museum should have private money to build it; it should have a foundation and a collection if it wants to be a collecting museum. In the case of the Miami museum, the government funded it. I felt that the money should be better spent on social services like feeding the hungry, caring for the homeless and the like. Private individuals should pay for museums.”

Despite his efforts, the museum, renamed the Pérez Art Museum of Miami thanks to a huge donation from real estate developer Jorge M. Pérez, received $100 million in public funding.

A cuboid sculpture made of bricks of different materials

“Small Cubed 7” (2021) by Sean Scully © Courtesy of the artist and The Margulies Collection. Photo: Brian Buckley

A dark blue painting with swirling brush strokes and a golden circle in the middle

Blue and Gold (2002) by Mimmo Paladino © Courtesy of the artist and The Margulies Collection

I ask him if he still buys art. “Yes! Last month I bought a Mimmo Paladino work on wood panel, “Blu e oro” (2002), Sean Scully’s stone block “Small Cubed 7” (2021) and Lisa Williamson’s “Bar Band” (2022) among others. Flash- Lacquer on aluminum.” With a collection this large, I wonder if he ever resells it. “Yes, but rarely – and then we use the money to buy more works.”

What are his criteria for buying art? “First, I have to like it,” he says. “Then it must fit into my collection. It must have the rhythm of the collection. And I have to be able to afford it; but today I often can’t buy: the prices are really amazing.” He has a budget, but doesn’t want to be specific about the amount. Certainly some pieces in his collection would achieve remarkable returns should he one day decide to sell them: for example Joan Miró’s “Femme dans la Nuit” (1940), which sold for just $300,000 in 1980, or Rothko’s Untitled (Silver, Orange, Plum) (1962), which sold for around $400,000 in 1983. His collection has been reported in the past to be worth around $800 million; I asked Mrs Hinds if that was up to date. Her response: “We’re not sellers, so we really don’t know what the rating is. We’re watching the auctions and the word that comes to mind is ‘crazy’. From time to time we sell a work to advance the collection, but the overall rating? I have no idea.”

A painting full of black, red, blue and yellow abstract shapes and small markings on a misty gray background

“Femme dans la Nuit” (1940) by Joan Miró © Courtesy of The Margulies Collection/Successió Miró/ADAGP, Paris and DACS London. Photo: Peter Harholdt

What do you think are the main differences between the art world now and then at the time of the Scull auction? “Now you see these gigantic prices: hedge funds want to buy art at any price. If you really love the art, you don’t want to speculate on it by quickly reselling it – I’m not interested in that.

“Art has given me a fulfilling life. I enjoyed it. I have learned. I’ve met great people. It was an amazing background for my kids – what more could you ask for?”

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