guy woodward meets the Mancunian former market trader whose love of a deal extends to wine as well as his art collection
Frank Cohen is 65. He neither looks, sounds nor acts his age. He has the thick northern accent and abundant nervous energy you’d expect of a 15-year-old school leaver honing his business skills on a Manchester market stall. Which is exactly what Cohen was doing 50 years ago. Today, he is also one of the most influential collectors of contemporary art in the world.
It is worth keeping both the Manchester market trader and the international art dealer in mind. For Cohen is a ducker and a diver in a rarefied world. He made his fortune building up the chain of Glyn Webb home improvement stores in northern England. His success allowed him to enter the world of modern art, whose more exclusive social circle then led him into wine.
We meet at his gallery, on an industrial estate in Wolverhampton. It’s hardly the Royal Academy, but Cohen says he wants to bridge the gap between Manchester and London and make art more accessible. He is variously described as the purveyor of ‘a bloody awful pile of tenth-rate tat’ (The Guardian) and ‘the Charles Saatchi of the north’ (BBC).
‘What’s happening?’ he asks, all Liam Gallagher in tone and manner. He swears liberally, is constantly discussing deals on his phone and is generally full of patter. As I wander around the eclectic, bizarre installations, he bounds over. ‘Okay, shoot’. I ask him how he first got into wine and Cohen tells the story of an art dealer who liked to do business in his London gallery over a bottle or two of Pétrus. Seduced by the glamour, Cohen was hooked after various glitzy winemaker dinners he was invited to by London merchants Corney & Barrow and John Armit.
Years later, Cohen visited Pétrus’ part-owner, 2008 Decanter Man of the Year and art enthusiast Christian Moueix (‘he’s got some amazing stuff’). It’s fair to say, though, that Cohen’s bold, daring taste in art (he once spent £68,000 on gold-encrusted excrement) is not reflected in his taste in wine, which remains distinctly conservative, albeit resolutely blue-chip. He hasn’t heard, for example, of the 2009 Man of the Year, Nicolás Catena.
Cohen buys Bordeaux en primeur every year, notably Pomerols, and is a big fan of Burgundy: Comte de Vogüé, Clos de Tart, Leroy, Lafon and Georges Roumier. Corney & Barrow say he’s a ‘very enthusiastic buyer’ of Domaine Leflaive’s Mâcon-Verze (a favourite everyday drinking white, along with Louis Latour’s Mâcon-Fuissé). From Spain, he likes the cult wines: Pingus and Benjamin Romeo’s Rioja’s.
One can’t help feeling, though, that Cohen is more motivated by the glamour and romance of wine than the stuff itself. And, perhaps, by the investment potential. He has built up one of the most sizeable collections of contemporary art in the world, buying mostly work from emerging artists in India and China, showing it, and eventually selling it on, often at rewarding returns. So does he adopt the same approach with wine?
‘When I buy paintings and sculptures I don’t really look at the investment potential, I look at what I want to own. With wine I knew that if I valued something well and bought 10 cases of it, I could drink five for free. It is a diminishing asset, there’s no capital gains tax on it, and that attracted me as well.’ How much does he have now? Tellingly, his answer comes in terms of value: ‘£700,000 worth – maybe more.’
There is something of the obsessive collector about Cohen. When he was young, it was coins and cigarette cards. Now it’s wine. ‘It’s the power of ownership that gives you more than the value,’ he says. But he doesn’t ‘see the point’ in collecting New World wines. ‘They’re not good for laying down and making money on. I’ve had a lot of New Zealand wines, and when I go to Thailand I drink a lot of Australian wines, but back here I drink very little of it. Why, when I can get Italian or Spanish or Bordeaux? I like the way Bordeaux tastes of the soil. I’m not bothered to experiment with South African, Chilean, Australian, even Israeli – those are for [everyday] drinking as far as I’m concerned.’
Cohen has drunk a number of Israeli wines, an obligation from his Jewish roots, perhaps, and he lauds Clos de Gat and Carmel. He can’t recall the name of any others, despite claiming ‘they’re becoming better than Bordeaux’ – a claim he feels the need to couch with the proviso that such wines are ‘only around £30 a bottle; you are never going to buy anything for more than £100 in the whole of Israel’. Later I receive an email detailing other Israeli wines he has enjoyed: Margalit, Castel, Yatir, Golan and Flam reds; Yarden and Recanati whites.
Cohen’s other soft spot is for Italian wines – Bruno Giacosa, Gaja and Antinori at the top end and Tenuta di Trinoro reds ‘for drinking’. He was once so impressed by a Barolo (Pianpolvere Soprano’s Bussia 1997) in a restaurant that he called over the owner and persuaded him to sell him a case. At a knockdown price, of course. One wonders whether it was the wine or the deal that he loved the most…
Written by Guy Woodward