What I Buy and Why: Fintech Executive Nick Themelis on His Quest for Emerging Artists and the Keith Haring That Started His Collection
He counts Kehinde Wiley, Cristina BanBan, and Kevin Beasley among the most important artists in his collection.
Nick Themelis knows his way around a high-stakes transaction. An early adopter of fintech, he helped transform trading platform MarketAxess from a small start-up into one of the world’s largest electronic marketplaces. After just 20 years, it has a spot on the S&P 500—thanks in large part to Themelis’s tirelessness.
Themelis has leveraged that business rigor and nimbleness with numbers (he’s a “tech and math genius,” according to his art advisor), combining it with a lifelong appreciation of art and respect for under-represented groups, to build a formidable collection of roughly 100 artworks.
Born in Queens and now based primarily in Palm Beach, Themelis is so steeped in collecting that he installed some of the original graffiti art he acquired—by the likes of Crash, Phoebe, and Cope2—at MarketAxess’s Hudson Yards headquarters, with the aim of fostering creativity among his team.
Themelis told Artnet News that in the beginning, in the 1990s, he mainly collected street art, starting with a Keith Haring. That focus has evolved over the years, under the guidance of art advisor Maria Brito, who said, “About 75 percent of the acquisitions in his collection come from my recommendations,” adding, “I love to work with him because of his openness and willingness to take chances.”
Brito estimated that she, in the past several years, has “helped Nick acquire Derrick Adams, his amazing Kehinde Wiley on glass, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Cristina BanBan, Wynnie Mynerva, Summer Wheat, Natalie Frank, Elizabeth Glaessner, Raúl de Nieves, Chelsea Culprit, and a dozen more female artists and artists of color.” Not to mention the Alex Katz deal—his biggest to date. “So there’s a mix of emerging, mid-career, and established artists in his collection,” she noted.
Plus, just retired, Themelis is likely to venture further into collecting and philanthropy. You could say he’s just getting started.
We caught up with him to do the math.
What was your first purchase (and how much did you pay for it)?
I grew up In Queens, New York, in the 1980s and was constantly exposed to graffiti as I journeyed to school on the subway or walking around Manhattan. I was immediately attracted to the obvious skill of the artists but also the boldness, color, and energy of the street art movement. Not everyone saw it this way, but I felt it was beautiful work by artists that didn’t have access to art schools or fine art materials. The streets were their galleries.
In 1998, I was able to make my very first fine art purchase. I acquired a very special and early Keith Haring painting on a tin box. I believe Keith made under 10 of these unique works and gave them as Christmas gifts to family members. It remains one my most prized possessions! Although not my recent focus, my collection continues to include legendary street artists such as Futura, A-One, Crash, and Richard Hambleton.
What was your most recent purchase?
My most recent acquisition is Alice Biko with Crown by Tavares Strachan. It is a majestic sculpture depicting Alice Biko, the influential mother of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.
There are so many extremely talented and ambitious artists working today but I think that Tavares Strachan is thinking and executing at the top of his craft. I was very impressed when art advisor Maria Brito introduced his work to me. Tavares’s unending curiosity and impeccable execution are clear reasons why he was recently selected as a MacArthur Genius Fellow.
What works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
Jordan Casteel would be the top of the list for an artist I would very much like to add to my collection. She paints the people of her community in a powerful and vibrant manner that challenges the traditional notions of gender, race, and social justice. I think her work will continue to grow in importance and she is still really young.
I would also very much like to a add the abstract artist Jadé Fadojutimi to my collection. She brings a woman of color’s experience to produce beautiful abstract dreamlike paintings.
What is the most expensive work of art that you own?
I recently acquired an exquisite painting by Alex Katz that really required me to step up! The painting is titled Double Sarah B (2011) and it is quite large at 120” x 84”. It was one of the highlights at the Alex Katz retrospective at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid last year. I really enjoy Alex’s scale, palette, and beautiful simplicity and love that the 95-year-old also grew up in Queens.
Where do you buy art most frequently?
My preference is to acquire primary works from the gallery directly representing the artist and I typically use an art advisor to provide up-to-date market information, access to galleries I may not have a relationship with, and just sound guidance. If you don’t mind, I am going to give a plug to my favorite art advisor, Maria Brito, who has helped me build my collection and who has been a trustworthy, brilliant, and tenacious advocate!
For artists who are no longer alive or working, I will bid on works that I love at major auction houses. This is where I acquired sculptures by John Chamberlain, works by Keith Haring, and a kinetic sculpture from the 1960s by George Rickey.
I do visit art fairs frequently. They are so much fun socially, but it’s not typically the venue I use for adding to my collection.
Is there a work you regret purchasing?
I currently have about 100 works of art in my collection and often when gallery shows are in other countries where I am unable to view in person, I rely on high-resolution images to make my decision. The vast majority of the time I am so much more pleased with the art I see in person than what the PDF was able to relay.
It is a rare occurrence when I don’t vibe with the work when living with it. This has happened two or three times, but I would prefer to keep the specifics to myself. I have never sold any art from my collection so you may find these hanging in one of my kids’ houses.
What is the work hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?
I have a few living rooms, ha! But two paintings hanging above my favorite couches are Moon Dreamer by Hiba Schahbaz, and another titled Fountains and Flowers (2022).
I also recently installed a really beautiful work by Summer Wheat in my living room. She has a very unique style where she uses an aluminum mesh as a foundation and pushes acrylic paint and gouache through it to make beautiful, colorful, and textured scenes.
In my bathroom I have an absolute gem by figurative painter Jenna Gribbon called Childhood Neighborhood Wrestlers from her breakout show at Fredericks and Freiser in 2019. Please note that this is just a powder room in my house and there is no shower to create steam or dampness that may affect this beautiful work. I take very good care of my art.
What is the most important work of art that you own?
Well, that is a very difficult question to answer, but maybe I can mention three that I feel will grow in importance over time and make it into the art history books.
Kehinde Wiley made a total of 10 unique paintings on stained-glass works for his retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. I acquired the over 8-foot-tall Saint Mary, which depicts a beautiful urban black woman with her child transposed on a traditional stained-glass background, like those you find in European churches. Saint Mary was also shown at the Petit Palais in Paris in 2016, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (BOZAR), and at the Centre d’art La Malmaison, Cannes, in 2020.
I also love my Cristina BanBan from her debut show with Perrotin in Shanghai in 2021. It’s a massive 90” x 72” canvas. Since I love art history but also love the story of each artist, I appreciated how she turned a déjeuner scene into her own by using the Park Güell in Barcelona, where she is originally from.
I would like to lastly mention Kevin Beasley, whose use of everyday materials, such as housedresses, kaftans, T-shirts, du-rags, pillowcases, and socks as a way to share with the viewer his life experience. Beasley was included in the Whitney Museum 2014 Biennial and he continues to do great work and experiment with technology and performance.
What work did you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
I honestly don’t feel any strong regrets, but the easy answer would be Basquiat! I saw a large painted airplane at what used to be Christie’s East. I bid on it but tapped out when my max budget of $8,000 was surpassed. I think the Basquiat finally sold for $10,500.
I was an early fan of artist Shara Hughes and watched her as she honed her skills and her confidence built up. Because of timing, a busy and chaotic life I ended up passing on some spectacular works. There is still time though!
If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?
In the mid 1990s I was spending time in London for work and one day stumbled across the Tate Modern. I was totally blown away by the Francis Bacon paintings that were on exhibit. I would steal with no regrets Painting 1946, which is currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is hanging on the fifth floor—grotesque, deeply meaningful, and beautifully executed.
If I could steal a second painting it would possibly be one of Richard Prince’s “Nurses” paintings.
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