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Jorge Coll: Making New with Old

Published on , by Pierre Naquin

After opening a gallery in London with his associate Nicolás Cortés, Jorge Coll is now heading Colnaghi. He tells us about the new-look profession of Old Masters art dealer. 

Jorge Coll Jorge Coll: Making New with Old
Jorge Coll
Courtesy Colnaghi

Colnaghi is the oldest art gallery in the world: what's the secret of this longevity? Sheer daring, both in the past and nowadays, with its duo of young Spanish dealers, Nicolás Cortés and Jorge Coll. Coll assisted his furniture dealer father from the age of 16, and then set up his own business in Madrid to focus on his passion: Old Masters. There he met his associate of the past twelve years, Nicolás Cortés. With one success after another, they opened a gallery in London and are now heading up Colnaghi, after just ten years. Jorge Coll tells us about the new-look profession of art dealer.  

What makes the Colnaghi gallery unique?
The most important thing is Colnaghi’s stamp on the market. There’s a famous saying in our trade: “Either you work for Colnaghi, or you will work for Colnaghi!” This also fits with my aspirations: aside from selling works, I adore history and knowledge. Working for Colnaghi means upholding and nurturing these very principles. Since we try to be really innovative in our approach to art dealing, doing it through, and for, such a prestigious establishment pushes us to make the right decisions. We can’t afford to make mistakes!

Is the Old Master sphere really open to change?
I’m deeply convinced that our profession has a pressing need to update its practices. We can't work the way we did fifty years ago. At Colnaghi, you need only look at the archives to see that all the right decisions have already been made! For example, the gallery managed the sale of the first painting acquired by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1889; that was over a hundred years ago. So what did we do? We decided last year to organise a pop-up exhibition in the city to maintain and renew our relations with the institutions there. The aim was also to take people by surprise. Doing a pop-up show in London or New York makes no impact – they happen everywhere, all the time. Moreover, the Detroit Institute of Arts is a fantastic museum, and you could say there's been a kind of rebirth in the city’s culture after the hardship of the past few years. But you need more than just an idea! It means a lot of work: conceiving a unified approach, seeking out the pieces, finding out about local customers, contacting them, understanding what museums need, the type of audiences, and so on. Even if you’re Colnaghi – and maybe especially if you’re Colnaghi – you can’t rest on your laurels.

Library in Colnaghi 's London gallery.
Library in Colnaghi 's London gallery.Courtesy Colnaghi

Is the US an important market for Colnaghi?
Absolutely. It’s where we already make half of our turnover. Moreover, the players there are very professional and organised, which is satisfying and effective. We’re even considering opening a gallery there soon.

It seems you want to do Old Masters with a contemporary style…
That’s right. We should keep the subject but change the methods. Books, parties, exhibition openings, fairs, pop-up shows, new services and so on are all part of the change. And I believe the profession is starting to appreciate it. They can see that we’re enthusiastic and hard-working, that we reinvest all our profits exclusively to advance the cause, that we’re passionate about our subject and want to share this passion with as many people as possible. It’s been a little less than two years since we took over at Colnaghi, and we know our peers are watching – and that they’re positive.   

Does this affect your organisation?
It has to. Today we have a team of thirty. I don’t know of any other Old Master dealers with such a big staff. It enables us to cover all our needs: marketing, logistics, sales, web, publishing, design, and so on. This makes us very free and responsive. We design our own stands, produce our own books and manage our own logistics. We even have a chef! It’s very useful! It means that we can create unique experiences at meals, which are ideal moments for sharing. In practical terms, we use our London venue essentially as an exhibition and sales gallery, while Madrid is mainly dedicated to the back-office and acquisitions.   

Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716-1780), “Still Life with Apples, Arbutus, Berries, a Watermelon, Box of Sweetmeats, Honey-Pot and Cask”, oil on canvas, 48 x
Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716-1780), “Still Life with Apples, Arbutus, Berries, a Watermelon, Box of Sweetmeats, Honey-Pot and Cask”, oil on canvas, 48 x 34.5 cm.Courtesy Colnaghi

Speaking of acquisitions, how do you source your pieces?
Spain is convenient for that. Unlike the UK, where clients naturally turn to auction houses when they want to sell their pieces, in Spain they still go to art dealers, which creates interesting opportunities for us. This way, we work with a range of players who have access to fantastic pieces but don’t have the structure or network to sell them internationally. We’re also directly involved with collectors. Finally, we buy at auction sometimes, especially when we spot “sleepers” (pieces whose real value has been missed by auction house experts). It’s also possible to reconstruct certain niche markets, and rediscover forgotten artists or movements. Hence the need for a lot of research to piece together origins and histories.

How do you perceive the Old Master market today?
Contrary to what some might say, I find it very active, lively, and dynamic. Luckily we’re not alone. Many dealers are being very innovative, like Johnny van Haeften, the Tomasso brothers, Benjamin Proust and Anna Maria Rossi. All of them invest in education, research and publication, and work a lot with museums. In addition to presenting high quality pieces, they provide this kind of edification, and make it accessible. Simply put, they’re all generous with their passion. This new spirit is in some ways dictated by the economic situation. The market is tighter, which forces dealers to be more creative – and this is obviously good for art lovers and collectors.  

How do you “make” new collectors?
By igniting that spark that makes them return every time. If you manage to share your passion, you make people fall in love with art, and one day, they naturally become customers. But again, it takes a lot of work: people need to be guided, encouraged and educated. You have to tell them again and again that there are more opportunities for pleasure, fun, and intellectual or emotional enrichment with Old Masters than with any other art segment. So it means getting down to it!  

Colnaghi, London (26 Bury Street) and Madrid (Calle Justiniano3).
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