In his decades living between his native Bogotá and his adoptive home Miami, art dealer Felipe Grimberg has amassed a cocktail story or two – from his childhood in Colombia to his friendship with Fernando Botero. He told about a number of these tales in his book Selling Boteroreleased in 2015.
Now, with more than 30 years of art under his belt, Grimberg continues where he left off with his second book, boatman 500. The founder of Miami’s Felipe Grimberg Fine Art, Grimburg is working at the height 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.
Recently, we spoke with Grimburg about his great career, the works that escaped, and his words of wisdom – and warning – to aspiring art dealers.
Tell me about your journey. How and why did you become an art dealer? What led you to where you are today?
My first notions of art and the art world were largely a family affair. Several times a year we visited a relative’s house that was literally crammed with art. The walls were covered, and sculptures scattered the house and the grounds. It turned out that she was one of the first real collectors of Colombian art in the 60s and 70s. I was sold. I loved admiring art, listening to the passionate conversations around art and observing people who enjoy and criticize art. I knew then and there that art would always be the driving force in my life.
I was a teenager when I asked my dad to buy art for our home, and I saw myself building art collections in beautiful surroundings. As I became more aware of the economic realities of life, I started selling and buying art from home. Life told me it was the right choice. It’s running in my blood. I ran a couple of my dad’s customers’ shops, ran t-shirts, and even sold shrimp from a local fish farm to local restaurants.
So that’s the beginning, and that’s what has led me to where I am today. I realize how privileged it sounds, but believe me, it’s been a long road of ups and downs. Nevertheless, I have woken up with a smile every day. Because I go to work, am engulfed by a world of artists and carried along by a tidal wave of lucky connections and people that I am introduced to. I was and still feel like an eternal scout for referrals and always looking for collectors willing to buy or sell. At the same time, I diligently maintain the relationships that have formed over so many years. Many of these connections have developed, I am happy to say, into true friendships.
What are the most important lessons you have learned in the art trade over the last 35 years? What advice would you give your younger self?
Given the story I just told you, the obvious answer is always to follow your passion. But I will certainly include a warning: Make sure to always keep an eye on how the world is changing. We have seen the evolution from collecting art to investing in art. We have seen how art becomes a commodity traded by the few rich. We have seen the development of trade from galleries to digital shows. It is imperative for the younger me to be aware that change is part of the world and that one must always have the finger on the pulse.
You moved from Bogotá to Miami in 2000. Why? How has Miami changed over the last 22 years?
I moved to Miami as a private art dealer. The biggest driving force behind the move was that Miami was fast becoming the crossroads between North and Latin America in terms of art. I felt like a pioneer, a pioneer who made a small contribution to the development of Miami as an important art center and at the same time introduced my countrymen to art and artists who climbed the ladder here in the United States. That was exciting. and so much fun.
In Miami, I felt like a puppet master working with the strings behind the curtain. I worked quietly and ethically behind the scenes, often calling in other partners who relied on my advice to help me make purchases. I did not exactly pick up the money with my small selections, but my clients were excited to access works by internationally renowned artists. Miami has definitely grown up. It has also grown on me. I feel like I’m a different person now than I would have been if I had stayed in Bogotá. Being in Miami puts you on the map in the art world. It’s certainly not New York, Paris or London, but for me, someone who is constantly building bridges to Latin America, it’s the ideal place to develop my business.
Has there been 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 together with two investors. We paid a total of $ 814,000 for the two works: Quality meat for the public and Chicken rice. They were loaned to the Whitney Museum in New York for Basquiat’s retrospective. One of the partners lost faith in Basquiat’s prospects, so we sold them at a loss. Today, each of these pieces would be around $ 35 million. I know, it sounds like it’s all about money. But you need to have a look at the pieces. They’re beautiful.
What has been your most memorable experience in the art world?
The memories of the first works of art I got as a young boy in Colombia. And in 2004, when I brought Sir Dennis Mahon to the Prado Museum to confirm the origin of a Caravaggio that a customer had brought to me. The stakes were high, though the result was devastating to 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 the origin of a piece was incredible.
And last but not least, the incredible privilege of all the moments I’ve had over the years, being around Fernando Botero. There is no more fascinating character to be around. The way he speaks, his European demeanor and his incredible discipline in his work and in public. Visiting Pietrasanta, where he works with his foundries in the summer, is certainly high on the list of memorable experiences.
In 2015, you published your book Selling Botero, which dives into your career and relationship with Botero. Can you tell me about the book and your relationship with the artist?
Selling 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 thread that runs through the book is my search for 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 international art world and eventually as a friend. The book is about that journey. Now at the age of 90, Botero is at the culmination of his accomplishments, recently setting a world record for one of his monumental statues at Sotheby’s. I am currently working on another part on the same theme. It is called boatman 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 act and promote his work.
You also have an extensive personal collection. What was the first work you bought?
When I grew up in Colombia and was surrounded by the local scene, it is not surprising that my first purchases were Colombian artists in the 1980s. 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 one might expect, the most expensive was a 1964 Botero, Madame Rubens, which I bought at auction in 1987 for $ 50,000. It was a lot of money in 1987. But I remember it clearly.
Is there a work or two you consider the highlights of your collection?
A work by Sean Scully and recently works by Eddie Martinez and Katharina Grosse.
If you could own any work of art in the world, what would it be?
It would be Boat party breakfast by Pierre-August Renoir, currently at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC
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