The art of selling

Jean-Davide Malat, art-world boulevardier and adviser to the A-list, will go to any lengths to uncover the next big thing, finds Andy Jones

March 29 2020


The art dealer Jean-David Malat is always seen in the back of the most interesting parties. Always seen because he’s a rangy six-foot three (and a razor-tailored ex-Prada model), and always there because he is extravagantly well connected. Standing next to him may make you wish you’d worn a better suit, but his Parisian sangfroid makes you feel it doesn’t matter.

His eponymous gallery opened around the corner from Claridge’s in June, and it’s a contrast from the usual Mayfair art whirl, where egos and cheque books tend to compete for size. During his opening exhibition of Korean-Norwegian artist Henrik Uldalen, Malat was so taken by one enraptured fan who had visited more than a dozen times, that she was given a print as a memento. In fact, some £15,000 worth of other prints were given away to art professionals and amateur attendees alike during opening week.

JD Malat, the gallery, comes at you swinging. Bang in the middle, like a raised fist, is a sculpture by Lithuanian artist Aspencrow, showing the controversial mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor bursting out of a rock prison. Partfossil, part-Tussauds, the 100kg work has real hair, glass eyes and realistic silicone skin.

Even Malat’s artists are prime networkers: McGregor himself will take delivery of the £50,000 sculpture, given free to him as a 30th birthday present from Aspencrow.

Malat’s business is selling work from people you haven’t heard of, to people you very much have. A trawl through gossip columns shows ‘JD’ has bought and sold for Bono, Jude Law, Lily Allen, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gordon Ramsay. Even when he’s absent he’s still celebfixing – his son, Joshua, seven, was squiring singer Natalie Imbruglia around on opening night, while his dad was occupied. Not that Malat is brazen about such things. Like a cat burglar, it is almost a matter of personal pride for him not to be caught in the act. A rare slip saw him papped leading TV personality Kelly Brook around town on a spree.

Malat, 43, does reveal he sold a painting to the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana (a punk reimagining of Kate and Wills by artist Zoobs), but only because it’s hanging in their New Bond Street store for all the world to see. His first ever celebrity client was a besuited Pierce Brosnan, who came splashing in from the rain, almost James Bond-like, one Saturday afternoon. (Brosnan, something of an artist himself, just sold his own portrait of Bob Dylan at auction for £1m.)

He’ll buy and sell works by major names – he sold a Francis Bacon at auction for £9m, for instance – but such talk leaves him almost gloomy. Like a Premier League talent scout, Malat’s rush comes from unearthing new talents, rather than trading established names, and he’s made some remarkable discoveries. Óli G Johannsson, an unknown 60-something fisherman, was chased down following a friend’s tip-off and a seven-hour car ride across Iceland’s rural moonscapes. Santiago Parra, a Colombian artist who paints only in black, was spotted at an art fair years ago, given time to germinate and then signed up for the new gallery.

And Malat invited Uldalen to show after discovering him on Instagram three years ago. He didn’t even have a gallery space secured at that point, but admits with a Gallic shrug: “You always need to take a risk, no?”

It paid off. Malat showed 24 works by Uldalen, and almost sold the lot – with one going for £35,000. “Sometimes you have a famous artist, a Banksy, and people come and look and nod, but they aren’t moved by it,” he says. “But, during Uldalen, I am not joking, people would cry. I have never seen that, in 12 years of running galleries.”

Back in 1998, Malat’s first ever sale was in a less glamorous milieu: it was the year France hosted and won the World Cup, and he made a mint, dealing souvenirs and World Cup T-shirts in Paris. Then came the inspiration: “I saw how Americans were crazy about Limoges porcelain. They bought suitcases full of it. I thought, why can’t I buy it and take it over there?”

A one-way flight later, he was selling a crate of Limoges door-to-door to palatial homes in Beverly Hills. “My accent helps, obviously,” he admits. But a sales technique was established. “I was really just selling little porcelain boxes; it was like selling a painting. You have to create a history or story around it,” he explains. “When people buy art, they buy the artist’s story with it, to tell their friends, to daydream about.”

After a brief stint in the fashion world, he arrived at Opera Gallery, the contemporary art powerhouse with spaces in London, Paris, New York and several other cities around the world, where he progressed to become director. Despite completing a course at Sotheby’s, Malat insists the way to succeed is to be self-taught. “I learned much more with the internet, books and gallery visits than from art courses. You learn mostly with your own eyes and life experience.”

Indeed, ‘Fake it till you make it’ is essentially Malat’s advice to budding collectors and art world interlopers. “People say, ‘Oh Madonna, she has a great art collection,’ but of course she dated Jean-Michel Basquiat and that helps,” he says. “I'm sure there is someone out there buying things for Taylor Swift right now. I was looking at [the model] Emily Ratajkowski’s Instagram and her house is full of really sharp prints – everyone, everyone is collecting art.”

And how does he begin his forays with celebrities? The job of an art dealer is not to be in your art gallery, but to be everywhere else where buyers gather in droves: the south of France, Art Basel in Miami or the Formula One circuit (particularly Baku, Monaco and Dubai). When we speak, he’s on his way to St Tropez. “For the next two days I’m at a huge party hosted by a very important Lebanese client of mine. The new Frieze fair in LA is also somewhere we need to be.”

Malat’s wife, Iriane, who is looking after their young son, Davi, must only see her husband fleetingly. Thankfully for home life, the work regularly comes to him. His gallery manager, Victoria Aboucaya, says, “Some clients will say, ‘We need five paintings for our new home in south of France, JD, please buy us something.’” Malat almost blushes.

Even mere mortals can invest their nest egg. The emotive, smoky Uldalens – which have paint piled high, bursting off the canvas – have an affordable £7,000 starting price for now. Malat’s latest next big thing, meanwhile, is Turkish painter Erdogan Zumrutoglu, whose combative style falls somewhere between Francis Bacon, Picasso and Soutine.

The key trick, says Malat, is to keep an artist exclusive. “Some can make 100 paintings a year. Then you can just sell, sell, sell. But Zumrutoglu will only have 10 works. The most confident collectors and buyers in Hong Kong and New York are now getting excited.”

The Zumrutoglu prices are supposedly being kept low for now, although one has been sold for £75,000, and another snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul. “His art is not pretty – he says that himself,” says Malat. “But Zumrutoglu is a very safe investment.”

Andy Jones is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.