Michel Carel still owns and operates the first art gallery on South Miami Beach's famed Lincoln Road Mall. That Carel Gallery still exists given the ups and downs of the mall over the last thirty years speaks loudly for the business acumen and artistic taste of its owner, who drove a tank in World War II, moved from France to New York City, then went on to his beloved Miami Beach, where he became thoroughly American and got rich - at least he is reckoned to be a wealthy gentleman by starving artists in the area.
Now Mr. Carel personally prefers early modern art, and so do his customers. He is rightfully proud of their testimonials as well as the letters he has received from famous painters and friends thanking him for his art lessons. I dropped in for advice shortly after moving to South Beach, where I figured I should make a fortune in short order because I had almost reached retirement age and had next to nothing to retire on. The art and real estate business seemed the best place to turn a fast buck given the time restraints. The red-hot art and real estate markets are joined at the hip in Miami. Art Basel Miami, sponsored in part by real estate tycoons to hustle their wares, is the really big show.
Mr. Carel was sitting down and reading something when I entered the gallery. He interrupted his reading and looked me up and down as I walked towards him. After we exchanged pleasantries, he asked me what I was looking for. I told him I was new in town, or rather had returned to South Beach after many years, and I wanted to know whether it was best to get into the art business or into the real estate business if one had nothing and wants to retire in five years.
"Get into real estate, not art," he declared without a moment's hesitation. "Sell real estate. It is already there. In three years you can get rich. Then come back and buy a masterpiece from me."
"But what about all this stuff called Contemporary Art? Even Wall Street is getting into the act and creating funds, saying Contemporary Art will do nothing but appreciate."
"In two years or so it will all be gone, replaced by something else. Real estate will still be there. The art you see here," he continued with a satisfied nod towards his collection, "are all by well known artists, many of them dead. Time has proven their value."
"I see," I said, looking around. "So you buy fine art, something worthy of long-term investment. The rest is for short-term gains, the stuff people call Contemporary Art. I really don't know much about art. I didn't appreciated fine art until I was over 40 and saw the Van Gogh Exhibit at the Metropolitan. It almost knocked me down. Much of what I've seen in Miami seems trashy, not very well done at all - a few fine works here and there, but framed by clutter all around. But I suppose that's true for much of human production, especially when the product is immaterial," I philosophized.
"They don't know what they are doing. They have no foundation. They cannot sketch," Mr. Carel explained.
"It's junk, right?"
"What do you think of this installation?" Carel pointed to a photograph of something exhibited at Art Basel - a huge, irregular, ballooning shape made of red sheets stretched over a frame. "This artist is very well known," he affirmed. "Art Basel is not known for junk."
"Installation?" I repeated - I was not familiar with the application of the term to art. "My dad installed Venetian blinds after World War II, and I know a man who installs cable. Would you buy this thing?"
"That is for you to buy, not me," he coyly replied.
"Buy it for what? I would never buy it. Don't you ever protest that things like this are called art?"
"I am too old for protests," said he. "That is for the young."
I walked slowly around the gallery. I spotted three paintings I liked, and started to write down the names of the artists so I could find out more about them."
"There is no writing here," Carel firmly commanded.
"But I want to write down the names of these artists."
"Because I'm an art student."
"Who is your teacher?"
"My eye is my teacher."
He nodded approvingly, yet said, "But I do not allow writing here."
"This is a business. People will try to contact the artist to get lower prices."
"I see," I said, putting away my pad and pencil. At that point I noticed hand-written notices stuck on the walls between some of the paintings: all paintings in the gallery are originals, the author had scrawled. That caused me to wonder how buyers could be sure a painting was not an excellent fake.
"Do the people who come into the gallery know a lot about art?" I asked.
"They do not know very much around here, and if they do, they come to me."
"What if.... "
"We do not ask 'what if' around here," Mr. Carel interjected, as if he had read my mind. (1) Never mind, his integrity is presumable unimpeachable.
"Okay. Thank you for the advice to get into real estate instead of art. And thanks for the art lesson. I will remember what you said." I headed for the door.
"I wish you well," he said as I left, and I think he meant it. When I make it big, I will come back and buy a masterpiece from him. He is over 70, but I suppose he will still be there.
Note (1): WHAT IF? An artist at Art Center South Florida on Lincoln Road told me that Mr. Carel himself paints, under the nom de plume Michel Kouliche, whom is promoted as a 1920s painter, and that Mr. Carel ships the paintings to France for distribution, often back to his gallery on Lincoln Road. In other words, that Michel Kouliche is Michel Carel. I was unable to corroborate or disprove that allegation.
2005 Miami Beach