Guess who’s shaking up Montreal?

An L.A. denim mogul in exile opens a hotel and fills it with priceless art

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

An infamous new citizen has single-handedly revamped the Montreal art scene. Georges Marciano, co-founder of the Guess? Inc. denim empire, decamped to the Old Port from L.A. this year after losing a high-profile defamation lawsuit and dropping out of the 2010 gubernatorial race for California. With him came his priceless collection of postwar American art—along with wads of cash, his 84-carat diamond, and four Ferraris.

Marciano couldn’t be happier about the move. He bought the grand L’Hôtel XIXe Siècle and renamed it Lhotel last month. Outside the front door is one of Robert Indiana’s iconic Love sculptures. Five of Marciano’s sculptures are installed outdoors throughout the Old Port for public viewing.

“It’s a love story,” explained Marciano, during an exclusive interview with Maclean’s. “The hotel wasn’t even for sale. I drove by and bought it without seeing the interior. The architecture was absolutely magnificent, as is the city. Los Angeles is dead, with no culture, no life outside work. I was bored so I sold my real estate and moved here. Montreal has a taste of Europe, with the dual languages.”

Marciano, who grew up in Marseille, has the courtly air of a deposed king. “I have no intention of starting a chain of hotels,” he said, gesturing to the 14-foot ceilings and stained-glass roof in Lhotel’s breakfast room. “I fell in love with this property as a home where I can share my art with the guests. I’m planning on losing money. You know, I paid $13 million or $14 million for it, but it would be over $80 million in New York.”

Guests wandering the halls of the five-floor hotel are treated to approximately 250 original works by A-list artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Jim Dine, Ed Ruscha, Christo, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. Most are prints with their Sotheby’s or Christie’s stickers still on the bottom right corner, but some are paintings, like After by Jasper Johns and Night Clouds by Michael Gallagher. A portrait of Marciano created by Andy Warhol hangs over the sortie sign at reception.

“I was blown away,” reports Montreal art consultant Barbara Silverberg. “It’s totally unique in Canada, let alone Montreal. There are people who have a Jim Dine or an Andy Warhol, but nowhere else in this city can you see such a varied collection of American pop art.” She adds, “I’m not sure he knows exactly what he has here. He has things the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts would be envious to secure.”

Marciano knows. You don’t get to be a denim-turned-real-estate mogul without knowing the value of your assets. Anthony Grant, executive vice-president of Sotheby’s contemporary art department, describes Marciano as “inquisitive and well-informed. It’s not about turning a profit or speculating. In this business, I can tell the difference.”

So can Stéphane Aquin, curator of contemporary art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. After meeting Marciano this spring, Aquin was thoroughly charmed and impressed. The museum will soon be the lucky recipient of two loans for its sculpture garden. “We have no superstar pieces from this moment in pop art and neither does the Musée d’art contemporain,” says Aquin. “For that, you need to go to the National Gallery of Canada or the AGO. I mean, we curated a blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibit in 2008-09 and the museum doesn’t even have a major Warhol. They were all loans!”

Lawyer Rex Parris advises Montrealers to see the art before repo men take it away. “That can happen when you owe people a quarter of a billion dollars,” says Parris, whose clients have not been paid the US$250 million in damages awarded them in countersuits against their former employer, Marciano, in 2009. “Creditors filed an involuntary bankruptcy action against him and he’s scheduled for a debtor’s exam in June, although he filed for a motion to extend. It’s highly possible his assets will be seized.”

“Money comes and money goes,” shrugged Marciano. “If I lose it all, I would be a very good waiter. I was a waiter before; I’ll be a waiter now. Yes, I live in my own hotel, but I can be happy living in a small bedroom.”

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