Entertainment & Arts

Art collector Frank Cohen on how to buy art

Frank Cohen
Image caption Frank Cohen started collecting art after selling his chain of paint and wallpaper shops

Frank Cohen is one of the UK's most voracious and deep-pocketed art collectors. He is often dubbed the "Saatchi of the north", although he prefers the "Manchester Medici" - the city's answer to Florence's Renaissance art patrons, perhaps.

Since selling his DIY business in 1997, Cohen has built up a collection of 2,000 artworks, and has now put his weight behind the Buy Art Fair, which is taking place in the city this weekend, offering art for £5,000 and under from 100 artists and galleries around the country.

Speaking to the BBC, Cohen gives his tips for those starting a collection, reveals which up-and-coming artists he has his eye on, and whether he will open a gallery in his home city.


What should budding art collectors look for?

"When I first started out, I didn't know what I was looking for," Cohen says. "But I had a good eye and an instinctive eye.

"The first and foremost thing you should do is - you've got to buy what you like. It's no good buying to say, 'is that going to be worth a few quid in a few years time?'

"You've just got to do what you like, and investigate as well. Go to museums and have a look around museums. The more you look at, the better it is, because you get an idea.

"If you can't afford to buy a piece, I would then suggest maybe buy a print to start with because the prints market has become quite an interesting market. I buy prints as well. Just because it's a print doesn't mean it's worthless. A lot of artists do use that medium."

Asked which up-and-coming artists he has his eye on, Cohen names Philadelphia-based Alex Da Corte plus Jeff Elrod and Pryce Lee.


Image copyright Buy Art Fair

Talking money

Prices at the Buy Art Fair (above) start at £50 - but is it really possible to get anything decent at the lower end of the price range?

"Absolutely," Cohen replies, although he adds that the market has risen since he started collecting.

"I don't know about £50 any more, but I'm certain for $5,000 (£3,300 - he speaks in the international art language of US dollars) you can get some very good things."

What is the most he has ever spent on a single artwork? "I never really like to discuss money," Cohen replies nervously. "Do I really need to answer that question?"

How many noughts were in the price? "Let's put it this way - how many noughts are there in a million? Six? Let's say there was an eight in front of the six [noughts].

"It was a Jeff Koons [sculpture], but that was a very odd situation because, with that artist, you have to wait five or six years for these things to be fabricated."


A Frank Cohen gallery in Manchester?

Cohen has had his own exhibition spaces in Wolverhampton and London - but not his home city.

The 72-year-old says he would "love to" set one up. He adds: "I had the opportunity to do that [but] it got too involved.

"The council and the property people got involved. I wanted to do a cheap sort of thing [and it became] a very expensive thing. It's a non-profit organisation.

"But if somebody did give me the right space, I probably would show my collection, or arrange for other people to show their collections, or have a contemporary art museum or something like that, like I did at the Dairy Art Centre [in London].

"No-one's offered me anything, so let's see what happens. I'm not getting any younger, and it's hard work putting all this together."

The 72-year-old looks admiringly at the old Granada TV studios, where Buy Art Fair is taking place. Unfortunately they are being demolished soon to make way for a new development, so Cohen cannot claim them.

He does say he is "really impressed" by how the city's art scene has grown in recent years, with developments like the enlarged Whitworth gallery, Manchester International Festival and new arts complex Home.

But there are still too few commercial galleries, he says. "If I go to London I can spend a whole week going from gallery to gallery to gallery - East End, West End, everywhere you go there are spaces selling art.

"If I wanted to go out and buy art in Manchester, I might go to the Northern Quarter and see two or three galleries at most. The more showcases there are for people to see art and spend the day out will only enhance it. So I think it will take off.

"There is no shortage of money here, with plenty of wealthy businessmen and people who can afford to buy art. But really, in a silly sort of way, they need educating."

Buy Art Fair runs until Sunday 27 September.

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