If you ask Frank Cohen when he caught the collecting bug, he will say he always had it. “I’ve been a collector all my life. When I was a kid, it was cigarette packets and old coins,” he says. His introduction to prints, which came via his future father-in-law, led to a desire to own original works. Nearly 50 years later, the Manchester-born entrepreneur has not looked back. “Every penny I’ve had has been put into art,” he says. In the 1970s, he focused on Modern British artists such as Edward Burra before concentrating on the YBAs in the early 1990s. Now he buys what catches his eye, with figurative works topping his wish list. A selection of monochromatic landscapes from his collection by the British painter John Virtue are currently on display at Fortnum & Mason in his third collaboration with the department store (until 20 October).
How did you first get into collecting?
My wife’s father was an old-fashioned art dealer in Manchester named Jack Garson. He dealt in Modern British artists such as L.S. Lowry, David Shepherd and Edith Le Breton. He was a wheeler-dealer who always wore a suit, waistcoat and dickie bow. Every time I went to collect his daughter, when we were courting, he would sell me Lowry limited-edition prints. I had thousands of the bloody things.
What was the first work you bought?
It was a postcard-sized Lowry painting called Our Family, for about £1,100. It was my first of 57 Lowrys. Once I get it in my blood to do something, I go mad. I haven’t got them all now. I wasn’t sentimental in those [early] days; that only comes when you get old.
And your most recent purchase?
A beautiful George Condo painting.
What is the most expensive work in your collection?
It’s probably a 1960s work by Frank Auerbach, worth around £5m.
If your house was on fire, which work would you save?
I’d save my wife. What do you want me to say? I wouldn’t give a shit about the art, it’s all insured, but my wife…
What is your dream purchase?
There are too many things that I would love to own, pieces in museums that are beyond reach. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is one of my favourites. And I hadn’t looked closely at Balthus until the great show at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. Figurative pieces are my thing; that’s why I collected Modern British artists like Edward Burra. I also like Edward Hopper and the American Realists.
Which work in your collection requires the most maintenance?
I buy a lot of sculpture that has to be waxed and cleaned. In my garden, I’ve got an Anthony Caro, a Franz West, a William Turnbull, etc. In fact, there is a guy here today giving them a wax.
What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?
For the past three years I’ve shown works at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. This year we’re showing 67 works by John Virtue.
Which artists would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Francis Bacon because he was outrageous. He might get pissed and pour a bottle of champagne over your head. He’d be very good company if you could stand the pace. Maggi Hambling is fantastic, a real bloody character. There are smoking bans everywhere, and yet she walks into Fortnum & Mason and lights up. Jake and Dinos Chapman are also good fun.
Which purchase do you regret?
Hundreds. I was a bulk buyer in the beginning. I used to go to small galleries and buy five of this and six of that.
Now, if you’re asking what I wish I’d bought… I started buying from [the late London dealer] Leslie Waddington in the mid-70s. I didn’t have any money, so he let me pay over time. I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am today without him. Early on he offered me a fantastic painting by Roy Lichtenstein for $80,000 but I couldn’t afford it; it probably would go for $15m at auction today.