Once a friend to Dali, Picasso and Warhol, Fayez Barakat is one of the world’s most prominent art collectors. In a rare interview, he tells his life story, and why he has switched from collecting to creating
It’s late afternoon on a Thursday at the Emirates Palace. At Le Café, there’s a gentle chatter in the air as hotel guests and day tourists sit down for high tea.
Around them a steady stream of visitors stroll the giant hotel’s corridors, many stopping to admire an impressive collection of antiquities kept in row upon row of tall, glass cabinets lining the palace walls.
At the Barakat Gallery shopfront, which is neatly locked up, a stocky man with a shaved bald head and distinct black-rimmed spectacles bounds up, keys in hand, to the front door.
Fayez Barakat, the fourth-generation ancient art dealer to whom the contents of the rows of glass cases belong, is apologising for being late.
Staring down at his once-black shoes, which are splattered in multicoloured spots of paint, he sheepishly explains that in his hurry he had forgotten to change them after spending the day painting in his new studio in Dubai.
After a lifetime amassing a collection estimated to number 40,000 pieces and valued at $1.5bn, Barakat is now painting daily for both “peace and spirituality”. This “secret passion”, fostered in childhood but somewhat neglected until a few years ago, is now at the centre of his self-described obsession with the arts.
“The paintings that I have presently in the gallery are my own work,” he says, looking around the modest-sized store where we are now seated in a rare one-on-one interview. “I went through an evolution myself about learning, about art even though I’m a self-taught artist.”
Barakat, 64, says he has “mastered more than 100 different techniques”, and had plans to publish 20 volumes “serenading 20 masters”. “Where I take their school of art, elaborate on it, try to also explain and show the continuation of a school that a master has not fully completed during their lifetime,” he says.
It’s ambitious. But then again, nothing Barakat does is by halves.
Born in Jerusalem into a farming family, Barakat was exposed to ancient art at a very young age. The family owned vineyards in the Hebron Hills in Palestine and villagers ploughing the fields would often unearth tombs.
“At that time, people were not as sophisticated or cultured as they are today to appreciate the historical or the archeological side of what was discovered,” Barakat says.
However, his great-grandfather saw things differently and spotted an opportunity. He took the artifacts to the marketplace, along with the family’s produce, and sold them to tourists who were more than happy to pay.
Barakat, meanwhile, spent his formative years working alongside British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon, developing skills in the basic principles of field archeology, and he would later apply his passion to studying under renowned Middle Eastern scholars and archaeologists Nelson Glueck and William Dever. His interest, in particular, was in ancient coinage, though he would become a fervent student of whatever new period of art took his interest.
“For me to be able to connect to Emperor Constantine at the age of seven, after being told (a coin I found) was about 1,700 years old, simply blew my mind,” he says of finding his first coin, by accident, on the way to school. “I became such an avid lover of history at an early age.”
After turning down a Fulbright Scholarship to study medicine at age 14 after his father believed the distance apart would be too difficult, Barakat joined the family business — building it up to five galleries across Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
His early collections were classical, biblical, Egyptian and — later — Mesoamerican, or pre-Columbian, art. The latter, in what emerges as a theme in his life story, was influenced by a meeting with the late American film director, screenwriter and actor John Huston, who would come to be a good friend and ultimately influence Barakat’s decision to set up his first overseas gallery in Beverly Hills in 1983. Barakat had already opened in Amman, Jordan, in 1973, and galleries in London (2003) and at the Emirates Palace (2008) would come much later.
“Its closeness to Mexico, its closeness to South and Central America and the availability of the material in Los Angeles that I was able to purchase and to trade in and to learn about,” are among the reasons listed by Barakat for the move to the US.
However, in Jerusalem, Barakat amassed an impressive clientele list that included notable 20th century artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
He describes Dali as “a very exotic man, a fun type of guy”. “He was one of the most extraordinary, unusual characters. He has one of the most complex, bizarre but intelligent minds,” he says.
Picasso, Barakat explains, was the reason behind his interest in African art, following their first encounter when Barakat was in his teens and Picasso was visiting the family gallery with the mayor of Jerusalem.
“They were speaking in French about African art and I was so frustrated — there were these two nice gentlemen, they were nicely dressed, I thought I had the catch of the day and they were not talking about biblical, Egyptian or classical antiquities,” Barakat says. With typical teenage bravado Barakat “ introduced” the men to his family’s collection while describing African art as “degenerated”.
“Pablo Picasso held me by the arm and said to me ‘young man, you should not speak in the manner you are speaking about African art and the reason is, African artists were natural-born artists that were not disciplined, they did not go to school the way the Greeks or the Egyptians did and amongst them every now and then an artist is born that is far superior than an Egyptian or a classical artist’,” Barakat says.
The lesson stuck: “I took a deep breath at the time and respected what he said. But he sparked an interest in me to collect African works and we have about 5,000 African works now,” he says, chuckling his infectious laugh.
Barakat says “quality, rarity and beauty” of an item were the three deciding factors for him to acquire a new object, though he admits that with his knowledge and experience, an historical connection, aesthetic connection and artistic connection were just as important.
What should the ordinary art collector look for? “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he says. “The most important thing that I recommend for any collector is to learn as much as possible about things that they are attracted to, because I believe there is a subliminal connection between the artwork, the artist that has created the artwork, the message that an object you see holds and the collector or the viewer.”
He is happy to provide advice and respects the straightforward attitude of some collectors whom make no secret of the fact that they acquire objects “just as a hedge against inflation”. However, there are some items which will only be sold “to the right owner, and at the right time”.
With more than 500 complete collections from around the world, Barakat says there is not a museum in the world that doesn’t have a piece in their collection that has not passed through his hands. “I imagine if we were to build museums out of scratch we could easily build 40 museums,” he says of the size of the collection.
However, he says trading nowadays is difficult, with governments, naturally, extremely protective of their national treasures. The only materials he now trades are items that came with a provenance or had been collected by collectors in the 19th or early 20th century.
“It’s not as fluid [as it used to be],” he says. “When I started the family collection and collecting, I had many members of my family that… invested a lot of money in the acquisition of these items. The purpose, you see, at the time, was building a museum, a family museum and at one stage I started building that in Bethlehem. But, the government, regrettably, had so many restrictions to operating it as a private family, so we gave up that idea.”
Similarly, restrictions on imports in Jordan have curtailed attempts to hold art exhibitions at his gallery in Amman. And while he has had less resistance in the UAE, he noted that when he promised Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, to create a mini museum for him in the Emirates Palace five years ago it was supposed to have 300 showcases — three times the number now actually on display.
“The people here are not yet ready to accept fully the different contradictory religions through the images — even if it’s Buddhist or Hindu or pre-Colombian or African — due to the Islamic faith that believes in just one God,” Barakat says, adding that it was the biggest challenge in developing the art culture in the Middle East.
“But, at the same time I imagine if my collection was not at Emirates Palace, but on the street, I think people would have destroyed my gallery. I had some of these fanatical, religious people screaming at me at times because they think I’m selling idols and I said ‘look, I’m not selling idols. We are here to learn what these idols represented to the people and to the cultures that had them — for our children to learn the difference of how good our religion is’. It’s an education process.”
Barakat says London is undoubtedly one of the best centres in the world for art. Paris is next, followed by Rome and New York. Los Angeles is getting there, he says, but nothing compares to museum and art gallery attendance figures elsewhere.
But, there is undoubtedly a shift in how the Middle East is approaching art. “When you think of Qatar, or you think of Abu Dhabi or many of the other sheikhdoms, I’m very happy to see the leaders are very much enthusiastic to promote art and culture — it is a fantastic thing for the whole world,” he says.
Barakat is playing an unofficial advisory role in Louvre Abu Dhabi — one of three cultural institutions slated for the Saadiyat Cultural District, along with the Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
“If the Louvre considers to acquire the collection they would have the first choice of refusal,” Barakat says, chuckling. While lauding the progress being made by some Middle Eastern countries, he is equally as scathing of the mass vandalism of antiquities seen in places like Egypt, where rioters looted and destroyed thousands of artifacts during the Arab Spring uprisings.
“This is a terrible thing. It is sad that people are not well-informed about the importance and the historical and archeological value of these things… it’s a disaster,” he says.
Barakat, who has had his own share of tragic events with cancer robbing him of his wife four years ago, just two years after it also claimed his son, Sufian, is winding back on a gruelling schedule that has seen him travel every month between his five homes in LA, London, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Amman for most of his life.
In the meantime, Barakat, whose artworks are sold in galleries around the world and fetch from $12,000 to well over $100,000 a piece, plans to focus on getting more paint on his shoes.
“The antiquities side, the ancient art side is taking 10 percent of my concentration,” he says. “The new challenge now for me is to succeed in being the artist that art critics think I am.”