It’s a sunny afternoon in London’s Albemarle Street, and I arrive at the offices of British diamond tycoon Laurence Graff to meet the people he calls “The Terrible Three”. Other than himself, this high-octane art group includes Peter Brant and Tony Shafrazi, US collector and US gallerist respectively; all are cutting a swathe through the jittery phenomenon that is the current global contemporary art world.
“We’re like three friends caught doing something naughty,” says Graff, sitting in his office, which is beautifully appointed with elegant furniture and works by artists Brian Clarke and Anselm Reyle, a portrait of Graff by Christoph Schellberg, a George Condo Ballet Gris and a piece by Graff’s artist son Stéphane, called Norma Jean. The “something naughty” that Graff speaks of refers to the men’s hunting, individually and in a pack, for art – lots of it, and of the best quality.
It is almost impossible to convene this powerful, globetrotting trio into one room, but they are being photographed together for this article in front of a gigantic Julian Schnabel in the boardroom. They couldn’t be more different, in background and physique: Graff, 71, is the East Ender who left school at 15 and made good, now chairman of the multimillion-pound London-based Graff Diamonds, all restrained elegance in a custom-made suit; Brant, 62, the dark-haired, polo-playing, newsprint, publishing and real-estate billionaire born in Queens, New York, dressed in grey flannels and blazer; and Iranian-born legendary dealer Shafrazi, 66, a rotund figure with a twinkle in his eye and a shock of white hair, who grew up in Iran, was educated at an English boarding school and then moved to New York in 1968.
They are clearly enjoying each other’s company, teasing and joking, while another friend of theirs, the sleek mega-collector Alberto Mugrabi from New York, has dropped in for tea and is making deals on the telephone. Every second a cell phone goes off, and figures or requests are rattled off at breakneck speed. The dynamic between them is relaxed with a hint of competitiveness. There’s a lot of testosterone in the room. Ever the adviser, gallerist Shafrazi, the most voluble of the group, suggests how collectors Brant and Graff should pose and whether to smile or look serious for the camera. It is hard to believe the age they are – they seem more like schoolboys trading adventure stories.
Shafrazi has known Graff and Brant since the 1980s; he introduced them to each other in the late 1990s. He is their fellow enthusiast and sounding board. “I’ve known Tony since he had black hair and was skinny,” says Graff. “He represented something out of British culture, a sort of Pygmalion.” Brant, who has been collecting since he was 19 years old, was already a seasoned buyer when he met Graff. He started advising the relative newcomer on a friendly basis. “Andy [Warhol] would have loved Laurence,” Brant, a close friend of Warhol’s, says. “Andy was a big collector of jewellery.”
Brant explains that “every collector collects in a different way, and Laurence applies his veracity in terms of collecting stones to the art he buys”. Graff acknowledges that Brant was and remains a big influence: “I modelled myself a little on him and on his taste,” Graff says, confirming Brant’s expert status.
Now they attend auctions together and look at interesting work in beautiful places, most recently at the 30th anniversary of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where Brant has just joined the board of trustees. They speak several times a week, wherever they are in the world.
Graff, who collected impressionist pictures before being encouraged by friends to include modern and contemporary, now has several Warhol icons, among them Lavender Marilyn (of Marilyn Monroe, 1962), acquired in November 2002, and Red Liz (Elizabeth Taylor, 1963), acquired in May 2005. Shafrazi, a former artist and dealer in New York since the 1970s, says of Brant: “There are very few collectors who last longer than 10 years, and Peter has been active for the past five decades. It’s very rare. He has passion and gets his elbows deep into connoisseurship. He’ll ring and ask, ‘Did you see this show and this piece?’, sometimes five or six calls a day until late into the night.”
With Graff and Brant, both highly successful businessmen, the line between company and collection is sometimes blurred, so much so that it has become part of their lives. “In my case, collecting is not so much improvement of the brand but of my self-esteem,” Graff says. However, as chairman of the family-owned Graff Diamonds, which has a $1bn turnover, he is the brand, with an eye for everything beautiful, above all for diamonds – many of the world’s finest have gone through his hands, been cut by his craftsmen and sold by him: “I find beauty in colour, in nature, in products, in people,” he tells me.
They are both of an age where what you “give back” is becoming important, quite apart from the fact that they have both built collections with well over 1,000 works (neither of them releases a precise figure) which demand a strategy for the long-term future. “Your first duty is to your company and shareholders, your second duty is to the world,” Graff says. Their preoccupations are increasingly about philanthropy, and how to leverage art and their collections towards this end.
What to do with your collection once it has grown to a sizeable entity is often a dilemma for private collectors, and Graff and Brant are no exception. Graff had an epiphany last year when his mother died at the age of 98, and he founded the charity Facet (For African Children Every Time) in her memory. It was the first time that business and art collecting came together for him in such a direct way.
He hosted an event last October during Frieze week at Christie’s, with Shafrazi and Brant present, where he and his wife of 47 years, Anne-Marie, presided over an auction which raised more than $1.2m for Facet. It contained works by Jeff Koons, Marc Quinn, Tracey Emin, William Kentridge, Richard Pettibone, Do Ho Suh, Stéphane Graff, Marc Newson, Damien Hirst and Erwin Wurm among others (many of them represented in his own collection). Graff got in touch with some of the artists personally for gifts.
“It is desired by many, and is an obvious thing to offer,” Graff said when I asked him why he had chosen art as the fundraising vehicle. “The works were so good that you might forget it’s a charity and actually like to buy. If I had known the whole room was going to go for $1.2m, I would have grabbed it myself.” Speaking as a businessman he outlined that “you go to the poorest countries where people can’t eat and you find gems of the rarest quality. We are very involved in various parts of Africa and have taken their treasure – now I want to give something back.”
The Facet Foundation’s initial project is building The Graff Leadership Centre. Based in Leribe, Lesotho, it is Graff’s first major philanthropic project, to be opened by the Queen of Lesotho on March 6. The centre provides training facilities for children, youths and adults in a multitude of programmes, including pre-employment skills. The second floor of the building is a hostel for 50 young girls in a leadership programme to develop peer leaders in their villages. Thousands of youths will benefit from this initiative. It also offers teacher training and civil society conferences, and emphasises community responsibility.
Brant has gone in a different direction. Owner of White Birch, the newsprint manufacturing company, which includes publishing (he owns Interview magazine, The Magazine Antiques and Art in America) and real estate, he did not set up a charity like Graff, but created The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, a 9,800sq ft gallery and non-profit study centre on his 300-acre estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, which opened in May last year. It was originally built in 1902 as a barn for storing local fruit; architect Richard Gluckman kept the local vernacular while transforming the space into light, airy galleries.
“All roads lead to Rome – it doesn’t matter which road you take,” Brant says about this new step. “If you are successful financially, it is your contribution to society. The more people look at art and are interested in art, the better the world is.” The centre has no admission charge and is open by appointment; it is a community-minded project that makes available his contemporary collection, one of the foremost in the world, for viewing, with a wider educational role for schools, colleges and individuals.
Above all, it is a family venture. His daughter, Allison Brant, is its director, lives close by and does many tours for visitors. She is the eldest of his nine children by two wives, first Sandy Simms Brant and then model Stephanie Seymour Brant (whom he is now divorcing). “We are still getting on our feet with the foundation,” Allison told me when we met at last year’s Miami Basel art fair. “My father has always collected, and both lent and donated to museums, over 100 loans a year. On the donating side, he has been disappointed that some of the works were never shown.”
This loss of control is an issue among many collectors, which is why they consider the model of a private foundation with public access to be a better long-term solution in some cases than donating to a public institution. “They are doing better things than museums and endowments,” says Peter Brant. “The strength of our endeavour is that it’s just Allison and me. If you do a good job, at some point you lose your fear. You don’t have to worry.”
This seems to be the mantra of Brant’s life. As a child, he started collecting coins, encouraged by his father who had a collection of late-18th-century paintings; “I absorbed the atmosphere,” says his son. Brant’s obsessive collecting drive covers a wide range of subjects including haute couture, which he collected with second wife Stephanie. Aside from Dior, Balenciaga, Courrèges and Vionnet, he owns the single largest collection of Azzedine Alaïa, with whom he stays whenever he is in Paris. “My grandfather left me $15,000 in the mid-1960s,” Brant says. “I was buying stocks and by 1968 I had turned that into $200,000. I met Bruno Bischofsberger [the dealer] when I was 15 years old, and he said, ‘You must meet Leo Castelli; his gallery is at 77th Street.’”
Through Castelli, Brant met Andy Warhol, who became a mentor, as did the great curator Henry Geldzahler, after whom Brant named the inaugural show at his own foundation. Remembering Henry’s Show was an homage to Geldzahler’s seminal exhibition in 1969 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – 400 works from 1940 to 1970 by 43 artists – which had been a revelation to Brant.
The Foundation’s show, curated by Brant himself, included 99 works by 27 artists; in the future, there will be more solo shows, the next one by Swiss artist Urs Fischer. He would also like to be involved with the Met at some point. “I’d like to work on the Met contemporary side,” he says. His collection focus is on his own culture “and how your own culture relates to others,” he says. “I like to collect some artists in-depth, but also find younger ones to stay in the present.”
Staying in the present is something that Brant has in common with Shafrazi, whom Allison refers to as “Uncle Tony” – someone who has been there all along, like a part of the family. “I am art history; I have a great feel for art; art is my life,” Shafrazi says when I ask him about his part in the relationship of The Terrible Three. He was born in 1943 to Iranian parents who divorced when he was two, and Shafrazi’s father wanted him to have an English education.
The young Tony was sent to live in a vicarage in Bilston, Suffolk, then to a boarding school called Whittlebury, north of Oxford, where he took refuge in the art department and life-drawing classes. He trained as an artist, first at London’s Hammersmith College of Art and Building and then at the Royal College of Art between 1963 and 1967. In London, the gallerist Robert Fraser “really liked my work”, he says.
But New York beckoned and on his first day there, in the summer of 1965, he stayed at a YMCA that happened to be just across the street from Andy Warhol’s Factory. He walked right in and met Warhol; and on the same day also met Roy Lichtenstein, who invited him for lunch, and dealer Leo Castelli, a major influence who helped him make the transition from artist to art dealer.
Shafrazi is also the man who will be remembered forever for attacking Picasso’s Guernica, spray-painting the words “Kill Lies All” when it was hanging at MoMA “smack in the middle of the Vietnam War”. It was a political act, a reaction to what was going on in the US at the time. “Here was the greatest painting about war of all time, and they’ve silenced it, no one can hear it scream! In a sense I gave it a voice,” he adds.
Of Picasso, Shafrazi says, “He’s my father, my family, my ancestor,” and indeed, there was Shafrazi sitting next to Graff when the latter bought a small drawing by Picasso for just under $1m at the most recent auctions in New York. It is of one of the artist’s mistresses, Dora Maar, executed in 1938. Brant was with them, too, when Graff bought a 1965 Warhol Self-Portrait for $6.1m and a 1984 Michael Jackson by Warhol for $812,500, both also in the November auctions.
Graff says he will always buy art: “It is my second life.” Like Brant, he is thinking about creating a permanent space for his collection in Switzerland. As for Facet’s future, the $1m seed fund Graff donated and the auction contribution are only the beginning: “With all the problems in Africa, I want to help children. The centre in Lesotho will initially provide 50 orphan girls with clothes, lodging and schools. It’s a difficult thing to do, but we are working with a Canadian organisation on the ground. We are funding it. I want people with infrastructure to come to us and see whether we can fund other projects.”
This won’t be the only Graff Leadership Centre; the company is investigating projects in southern Africa and Botswana. Just as in business, collecting and friendship, Graff is in it for the long term.