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The Prince of Barter : For hotel magnate and art collector Arnold Ashkenazy, every day's a high-stakes swap meet

July 16, 1989|DAVID COLKER

When Arnold Ashkenazy goes shopping for art to add to his 20,000-piece collection, insured for over $20 million, he rarely puts cash on the table. Hotel rooms, yes. Also airline tickets, jewelry, cameras, limousine rides, wine, televisions, Lakers tickets, VCRs and cruise packages.

But cash? Not if he can help it.

"Cash?" asked the impish Ashkenazy, 55, in mock horror. "Ah, but that would take all the fun out of it."

Ashkenazy's fun comes from buying art the old-fashioned way. He barters for it.

In the last few years he has obtained thousands of paintings and sculptures from artists in exchange for luxury accommodations, appliances and services.

"It's like a game show, the way he buys art," said one art dealer who rebuffed Ashkenazy's approaches.

Another art dealer contacted by Ashkenazy, Joni Gordon of Newspace gallery on Melrose Avenue, said she was astounded that he wanted to trade with items he had garnered through his elaborate barter network. "What did he think?" she asked with a laugh, "that I just fell off the turnip truck?"

Ashkenazy's methods and flamboyant manner may be looked on with disdain by many in the old-line art world, but he has struck a chord with young, often struggling artists (and a few who are well-established), offering them the chance to stay in deluxe hotels, call limousines on a whim and eat in expensive restaurants. He also gives them the chance to have their work seen by a wealthy clientele in a comfortable setting.

Ashkenazy's "galleries" are the Westside luxury hotels--including L'Ermitage, Bel Age and Mondrian--that he co-owns with his brother, Severyn. There are abstract sculptures in front of the hotels. Paintings and prints hang on almost every available wall space in the lobbies, suites, corridors, function rooms, restaurants, bars and bathrooms. Even the swimming pools and sun decks are viewing spots for large paintings on enamel and more sculptures.

The art is not just for decoration; it is part of the Ashkenazys' business operation--all of the art on display is for sale.

"You have to understand that we buy $3 million to $4 million worth of art a year," said the more sedate Severyn, 53, admitting that he and his brother have an economic as well as aesthetic motivation where art is concerned. He said the barter system has kept their collection on a steep growth curve. "Who has that kind of money on hand? In this way we can continually build a collection that would otherwise not be possible."

Even the 1986 Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Ashkenazy Enterprises--one of the biggest in Los Angeles County history--could not stop Arnold from making his appointed rounds of artists and dealers.

"I don't think there was a month went by we did not buy a piece of art," Severyn said.

"I don't think there was a day, " Arnold countered. "Not one day."

The first Ashkenazy family art collection was almost completely dismantled in September of 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland and sent troops into the city of Ternopol, where both brothers were born. When the soldiers came, Arnold was almost 5.

"I recall running up and down to save a few of the pieces we thought were in danger," Arnold said over a cappuccino in the restaurant at Mondrian. "We didn't realize that everything was in danger."

Almost all of the important pieces in the collection, which Arnold said included works by Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso and Manet, were gone by the end of the war. The Ashkenazys, however, were happy just to survive those years. Izador Ashkenazy, the boys' father, knew that Jews would be in mortal danger when the Nazis arrived in Ternopol. He used a hidden cache of gold coins to pay Gentiles to hide the family in the secret cellar of a country house.

At the end of the war the Ashkenazys made their way to France, where they prospered in the clothing business and began building a new art collection, and then to Los Angeles in 1957. With $100,000 borrowed from their father, Severyn and Arnold entered the real estate business, developing apartment buildings in the mid-Wilshire district and West Hollywood.

By the time he was 29, Severyn has noted in several interviews, he was a millionaire.

In 1978, the Ashkenazys entered a new business with the opening of L'Ermitage, an 111-suite luxury hotel in Beverly Hills named for the famed Hermitage art museum in Leningrad. Severyn spearheaded the family's business ventures as they opened more hotels. Arnold stayed in the background, overseeing the family art collection, operating a gallery for a few years and, in the late 1970s, accumulating large amounts of art from dealers and auction houses. He bought originals by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, John Altoon, Saul Steinberg and California Impressionist William Wendt, and lithographs by Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and Alexander Calder.

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