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Wednesday 16 January 2019

Shrewd Magnier's art of picking out beauty, excellence and value

The business magnate has maintained his decree of 'silence, exile and cunning', writes Liam Collins

ART OF THE MATTER: Despite the record price paid for the Modigliani painting, the only bidder was prearranged by the auction house
ART OF THE MATTER: Despite the record price paid for the Modigliani painting, the only bidder was prearranged by the auction house
JP Magnier
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

When Modigliani's Reclining Nude was on display in Room 45 of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin for six years, it didn't cause anything like the stir that erupted after it was sold in Sotheby's "tepid sale" in New York last week for €133m, or indeed when the Parisian police closed down the gallery where it was first exhibited in 1917.

Its stay in Dublin, from 2005 to 2012, along with other international works of art including Sir Joshua Reynolds's masterpiece Portrait of Omai, on loan from the 'Stallion Master' of Coolmore, John Magnier, was characterised not by an appreciation of the beauty of the paintings, but by a debate about tax shelters. The result was that the then finance minister, Brian Cowen, extended the term of Section 606 of the Taxes Consolidation Act, which gives tax breaks to those who loan artworks to national institutions, from six to 10 years.

The exact ownership of the Modigliani nude and the statuesque Omai has been a mystery which has intrigued, baffled and infuriated the international art world for over a decade. But few doubt that its ownership can be traced to John Magnier, the towering presence of the turf, and his wife Susan, a daughter of legendary horse trainer Vincent O'Brien. While other Irish plutocrats such as Tony O'Reilly, Tony Ryan and Michael Smurfit ransacked the auction houses for Yeats, Lavery, Orpen and Henry paintings, John Magnier was looking at the art world from an entirely different perspective.

The Modigliani is "a nude of a very self-possessed, sexually confident woman, who is not looking from a distance, she is absolutely in our gaze", according to Simon Shaw of sellers Sotheby's, but is described by other commentators as "hedonistic and erotic" and a plagiarised copy of far superior old masters. But, whatever its artistic merits, the painting reflects Magnier's single-minded desire to be the biggest and the best on an international stage and reap enormous financial rewards in the process.

Who knows what John Magnier sees in a horse that makes it the best in the world? But he has an uncanny ability to pick out beauty, excellence and exceptional value in a horse, paintings and property. It can't all be about mere profit or tax breaks either; he probably has more than enough money to last him and his family several lifetimes.

Plucked from Glenstal Abbey at the age of 16, following the death of his father, Magnier took over Grange Stud, a mixed agricultural and stud farm near Fermoy, Co Cork. He married Vincent O'Brien's daughter Susan and at the age of 27, he, O'Brien and Robert Sangster changed horse racing forever with the establishment of Coolmore and the domination of the 'sport of kings' on an international scale.

Sue Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derek Smith are now the owners' names that grace a string of thoroughbreds which dominate racing under the guidance of trainer Aidan O'Brien. Coolmore's wealth and prestige was greatly helped by a clause inserted in the 1969 Finance Act by the then minister, Charles J Haughey, which made fees earned from stallions in Ireland exempt from any form of tax. Magnier later spent four years in the Senate as an appointee of Mr Haughey.

In the intervening years, he has moved in mysterious ways, whether in the art world, on the racecourse or in international high finance, which has made him a billionaire along with his close associates, JP McManus, the Limerick gambler, and Dermot Desmond, the Dublin financier.

Magnier is not shy of fighting his corner either. When it comes to 'national treasures', he dug his heels in with Sir Alex Ferguson, when the then Manchester United manager claimed ownership of the racing blue-blood, Rock of Gibraltar, a horse Magnier considered had only been given 'on loan' out of friendship rather than permanently to the tough Scot. The resulting row wasn't pretty, but Magnier, who owned 28pc of Manchester United at the time, held on to his prize horse which stayed in Coolmore.

As his name swirls around the world in connection with the sale of the Reclining Nude - or 'Nu couche (sur le cote gauche), to give it its proper title - there is no telling where its former owner is, or indeed who exactly will benefit from the sale of the artwork, one of 26 large nudes painted in Paris between 1917 and 1920.

Magnier has many addresses, from Coolmore and Castlehyde Stud Farms in Fermoy to the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados, from stud farms in Australia and Kentucky to what is reputedly one of the finest beach-front villas in Marbella, Spain. But according to sparse company documents bearing his name in the Companies Office in Dublin, No 6 Rue de Rhone, Geneva, Switzerland, is his and Susan's official address.

Magnier is reputed to have paid £10.5m for Reynolds's Portrait of Omai at a Sotheby's auction in 2001. In 2003, after receiving a letter requesting an export licence for the painting from the Dublin solicitors firm of William Fry, the British Department of Culture deferred granting the licence to allow a campaign spearheaded by Sir David Attenborough to raise matching funds to buy it for the Tate Gallery. In the meantime, a temporary licence was granted for the painting to be taken to Ireland with assurances from Lochlann Quinn, then chairman of the National Gallery of Ireland that it would be returned when the loan period expired. When it did, the British authorities refused to extend the temporary export licence, Magnier declined the offer from Attenborough's committee and the painting went into storage until it was put on exhibition in Amsterdam in 2016.

The Modigliani's progress has been less controversial. Reportedly sold to Magnier at auction in 2003 for $26.9m, it graced the walls of the National Gallery of Ireland and more recently it was exhibited at Tate Modern in London prior to last Monday's hotly anticipated sale in New York, where it was knocked down to its new owner in less than five minutes.

While this, the most expensive painting sold in Sotheby's 274-year history, seemed stunning, it merely matched the price paid for another Modigliani nude by some Chinese billionaires, give or take a couple of million. According to business website Bloomberg, a final price of $200m was expected and it was dwarfed by the recent sale of Leonardo Da Vinci's $450m Salvator Mundi.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the sale was the unusual concentration of attention on the seller, rather than the buyer. Magnier's life-long Joycean diktat of "silence, exile and cunning" remains unbroken and, if there is a response, it will probably come from a racehorse carrying Sue Magnier's colours in the Epsom Derby in a few weeks' time - and the horse might even bear the name Amedeo Modigliani!

Sunday Independent

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