39 | Co-founder, Coll & Cortés, and CEO United Kingdom, Colnaghi, London, UK
Jorge Coll works with the urgency of a crusader, fighting to revive interest in the Old Masters. ‘Everything in life is about creating a buzz,’ says Coll. ‘My sons love the Prado. But why? Because the night before we go, I give them a picture of a painting we sold to the Prado and they make a drawing of it. Then I give them a spelling test with a list of names of artists I have sold to the museum. The next day they have to find that painting and those artists. So it’s not going to the museum for a lecture, it’s going to have an adventure.’ That Old Masters can be exciting, surprising, and even controversial reflects the attitude that has put Coll and his business partner, Nicolás Cortés, on the map, initially through their Coll & Cortés gallery in Madrid and, since 2015, as partners in the historic London gallery, Colnaghi.
Raised in Barcelona, Coll started visiting fairs at the age of six with his furniture-dealer father, and became inspired by ‘the idea of being surrounded by treasures, making discoveries and then selling them on’. After studying history of art, in 2003 he moved to Madrid, where he began to work with Cortés. In 2004, they opened Coll & Cortés in Madrid, expanding to a London gallery in 2012, all the while concentrating on Spanish sculpture and, more broadly, art from across the Spanish-speaking world. Highly dramatic, often gory, Spanish religious art had long been considered uncommercial in the UK. Yet the duo established a following for the field, with exhibitions such as ‘The Mystery of Faith’ (2009), which focused on polychrome sculpture and coincided with ‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery.
While Cortés remains in Madrid, sourcing and researching works, and building relationships with experts across Europe, Coll is in London, concentrating on selling, business development and organising the many events that Colnaghi now hosts. Coll says of the decision to take on Colnaghi, ‘There’s a saying in the business, “Either you will work for Colnaghi or you will work for Colnaghi”. So many famous dealers have worked there – it’s a rite of passage. It’s always been a dream of mine to be part of it.’
At Colnaghi, Coll sees his role as ‘keeping the fire of tradition going’ through innovation and disruption. ‘It’s our responsibility to take it to a new generation, through marketing, videos, social media, and being generous and inclusive with more events, and a programme for young connoisseurs. All the things that contemporary galleries do but Old Master galleries are not good at.’ He believes a fear of appearing ignorant and a lack of knowledge are the main deterrents to many would-be young collectors in the field – so social events that encourage learning by default are key. During Old Master evening sales, for example, Colnaghi hosts ‘The Price Is Right’ dinners: ‘We designed an app with 10 paintings that are being sold, and guests have to guess how much they will sell for […] They have to do their own research, look at the provenance, the condition, past results, and whether it’s a tricky subject.’ The prize is £20,000 to spend at Colnaghi. If such tactics are expensive, Coll believes they will pay dividends. ‘When we started, it was more about the business. But now, my main objective in life is to put Old Masters back on the map. We fight for them every day, and it is a fight.’
Underpinning the parties and dramatic displays in the gallery and at fairs is a core of research and an emphasis upon institutional relationships. ‘First we need to present works in a sexy way, to surprise people and get their attention. But the academic side is always there, ready for when they come to it.’ Colnaghi recently worked with the Rubens House, Antwerp, to facilitate the loan of a Tintoretto owned by the late David Bowie (which the singer bought from the gallery in 1987) from its new owner to the museum. This October, the Colnaghi Foundation will be launched, ‘to foster the appreciation and study of pre 20th-century artworks in the Western European tradition’ through masterclasses, visits, videos, and publications.
Later this year, Colnaghi will expand by opening premises on the Upper East Side in New York. He may work in a field that by definition looks back, but Coll is in a hurry to reach the future.
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