“I want to break into a new zone and a new economy,” Johns tells ATG, speaking over the phone from his base in the country’s capital. “The Dominican Republic has the strongest economy in Latin America and opening a space here enables me to focus on that whole area.”
A fourth-generation art dealer (his father is Bury Street Old Master dealer Derek Johns), he started trading as Theo Johns Fine Art ten years ago, out of his home in St James’s.
He will continue this model, using a large room in his new Santo Domingo home as his gallery. The house, built in the 1520s shortly after the arrival of the first European settlers, is itself an object of historic importance. It is in an area known locally as the Ciudad Colonial or simply Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Johns’ space focuses particularly on the work of the Spanish Old Masters.
The combination of these works and their setting gives the effect, he says, of walking into a museum – the only drawback is that hanging pictures on old, thick walls made of sand strengthened with mud and adhesive concrete can be a tricky process.
Though Johns already counts some clients in the area, he is in the process of building a base of buyers in the region, which does not have a thriving trade in traditional European art.
Nevertheless, he regards his relocation as an opportunity to expand the scope of his business at a time when there is some anxiety over the state of the trade, particularly in his specialist area.
“We constantly need to add to our client list,” he says, but this is a difficult proposition.
As he develops a sense of what buyers want, he will tailor his offerings to suit local tastes and will stock not just paintings but also works of art and furniture. He offers his services as an art adviser as well, sourcing and bidding for works, and plans to help with decoration and interior design.
“I’m not going to be a sort of old-fashioned dealer and I think this is in keeping with the general mood of Old Master specialists. The business is changing and we need to actively search for clients. That’s one of the main reasons for my move here,” he says.
For now, Johns is working with existing stock shipped over from the UK. Later, he will obtain works at sales in the US.
“There are thousands of auctions in America every month,” he says. “Europe might be a purer source for pieces than the US – except for New York – but there is a growing regional trade in Old Master paintings too.”
Despite the lure of a new market, the proximity to the US trade and the attractions of life on a beautiful Caribbean island, Johns also had more personal reasons to choose the Dominican Republic. His wife is half Dominican, and with the recent birth of their first child the time was right to make the move.
Family is clearly important to Johns who, after working at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and the Walpole Gallery, went on to be gallery manager in his father Derek’s business.
“He’s planning to visit early next year,” Johns says. “He is very supportive and I could not be doing anything that I do now without learning from his wisdom and knowledge of the art world.”
In the meantime, Johns will go about introducing himself to the art circuit, building up his client base and applying a little innovation to a new world market.