The business that became the Colnaghi gallery was established by Italian firework manufacturer, Giovanni Battista Torre, in Paris in 1760. Torre opened a shop with the name "Cabinet de Physique Expérimentale", where he sold scientific instruments, books and prints.
In 1767, Torre's son Anthony Torre moved to London where he opened a sister shop, specialising in prints, in partnership with another Italian immigrant, Anthony Molteno. Giovanni Torre died in 1780, and in 1784 Anthony Torre hired Paul Colnaghi—newly arrived in Paris from Milan—to manage a new shop in Paris. Colnaghi left Paris for London in May 1785, to join Torre and Molteno, who had become successful selling prints by leading engravers such as William Wynne Ryland and Valentine Green. The London business moved to Pall Mall in 1786 and Colnaghi married Anthony Torre's sister-in-law Elizabeth Baker.
Anthony Torre retired to Italy in 1788, and Molteno took over as senior partner. The firm operated as Molteno, Colnaghi & Co. for a time, with a new business connection to Italian partners in Paris, before Molteno left to found a separate company in 1793. Colnaghi now ran the original firm with a succession of partners, concentrating on selling new prints and engravings of Old Master paintings.
Colnaghi published a very popular series of engravings, the Cries of London, from 1792 to 1797. He moved premises to Cockspur Street in 1799, and survived the disruption to his trade caused by the Napoleonic Wars. His elder son Dominic became a partner in around 1810, and later his younger son Martin also became a partner. The firm held monthly levées at its premises for its customers, many from the British aristocracy. Colnaghi became the official print-seller to the Prince Regent, and he was asked to organise the Royal Collection, receiving a royal warrant when the Prince Regent became George IV. Colnaghi was also print-seller to George's sister, Charlotte, Princess Royal, later Queen of Württemberg. His daughter Caroline had married John Scott in 1807. Scott was founder of the resurrected London Magazine, in 1820, but was killed in a duel the following year.
Colnaghi's impending retirement to Italy was postponed when his son Martin sued both his father and his brother Dominic in 1824. The settlement of the lawsuit left Martin with the old shop. Martin became bankrupt in 1832 and 1843, and died in 1851, but his son (also Martin) continued the separate business in Pall Mall. Paul and Dominic Colnaghi moved to Pall Mall East—near the nascent National Gallery—and Paul Colnaghi continued to work in the business until he died in 1833.
Dominic Colnaghi and John Scott
Caroline Scott's son, John Anthony Scott, joined Dominic Colnaghi in the business in 1839. Scott commissioned William Simpson to go to the Crimea in 1854 to make watercolour sketches of scenes from the Crimean War, published as a series of 81 lithographs in The Seat of War in the East. The gallery also sold photographs by Roger Fenton. After this early experience with photography, the gallery commissioned Leonida Caldesi and Mattia Montecchi to take photographs at the Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, published in Gems of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1858, and Colnaghi published artistic photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron from 1864.
The firm was associated with John Constable, assisting him to exhibit The Hay Wain at the Paris Salon in 1824, where it won a gold medal. The art dealership organised exhibitions for the British Institution, and of paintings by Eugène Delacroix in 1829. After Scott died in 1864, and Dominic Colnaghi retired in 1865 and died in 1879, Scott's cousin Andrew McKay became sole proprietor. He was joined by his son William KcKay in 1879.
Old Master art dealer
When Andrew McKay retired in 1894, William McKay was joined in partnership by Edmund Deprez and Otto Gutekunst. Gutekunst was the son of Hermann Gutekunst, who managed the London branch of Paris art dealer Goupil & Cie in the 1860s. From the early 1860s he was working in the firm's London branch then managed by . The change of partners led to a significant change in the focus of the dealership. Colnaghi had been known primarily as a print-seller in the 19th century, but the firm started to gain a reputation as a dealer of Old Master paintings. The sale of original Old Master works accelerated for a number of reasons: the Settled Land Act 1882 allowed the breaking of entailed estates, allowing sales of aristocratic collections; the need to pay death duties, introduced in 1894, spurred the sale of works from the collections of the British aristocracy; and American collectors developed a taste for Old Master works.
With American art dealer Bernard Berenson, Colnaghi established a collection of Old Master paintings for Isabella Stewart Gardner for her house in Boston, including the Rape of Europa by Titian, acquired from Lord Darlney in 1896. The firm sold two paintings from the collection of Prince Mario Chigi Albano della Rovere—Botticelli's Madonna of the Eucharist and Titian's Portrait of Pietro Aretino—to Henry Clay Frick, now in the Frick Collection, although the sale of Italian paintings dried up after Prince Chigi was prosecuted under Italian new law prohibiting the export of pictures. The new law also prevented the sale of Titian's Sacred and Profane Love from the Borghese collection. Berenson was offered a partnership by Colnaghi in 1901, but decided not to accept the offer and later signed a partnership agreement with Colnaghi's arch-rival, Joseph Duveen.
Colnaghi hired instead Charlie Carstairs of New York gallery Knoedler instead. Colnaghi developed a fruitful relationship with Knoedler, with Colnaghi finding suitable paintings in Europe for Knoedler to sell to wealthy collectors in the US, including Andrew Mellon. Through Knoedler, Colnaghi sold to Mellon a Rembrandt Self-portrait that Gutekunst had acquired from the Duke of Buccleuch, and Holbein's Portrait of Edward VI.
Colnaghi negotiated the sale of Lord Ashburnham's Botticelli, The Death of Lucretia to Isabella Stewart Gardner, and also the sale of Rembrandt's Preacher Anslo and his wife. Colnaghi assisted Wilhelm von Bode to negotiate for the acquisition of the Hope Collection (gathered by banker Thomas Hope and inherited by Francis Hope, later 8th Duke of Newcastle) for the Berlin State Museums.
Deprez retired in 1907, and William McKay in 1911. The firm merged with Obach & Co in 1911—Gutekunst having married Charles Obach's daughter Lena in 1882—and Gustavus Mayer, formerly manager of Obach in New Bond Street, joined as Colnaghi as a partner, with the firm renamed P. & D. Colnaghi and Obach. The firm moved to a new building in New Bond Street in 1912, but returned to the name P. and D. Colnaghi and Company in 1914 (perhaps due to popular sentiment against German-sounding names at the beginning of the First World War).
Calouste Gulbenkian had bought four sets of works from the Russian government in 1928 to 1930, most now held by the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Colnaghi, Knoedler and Matthiesen assisted Paul Mellon to acquire many Russian works, including van Dyck's Portrait of Philip, 4th Lord Wharton, Jan van Eyck's Annunciation, Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi, Perugino's Crucifixion, Raphael's Saint George and the Dragon and Alba Madonna, Titian's Venus with a Mirror, and other works by Rembrandt and van Dyck. Mellon later donated his collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
In 1937, the firm becomes a limited company, with three directors: Otto Gutekunst, Gustavus Mayer, and James Byam Shaw. Gutekunst retired in 1939 and died in 1947; Mayer died in 1954. Meanwhile Harold Wright and Tom Baskett became directors in 1939, and Roderic Thesiger in 1955.
Colnaghi moved from New Bond Street to Old Bond Street in 1940, to share space with Knoedler. The Old Master Drawings department became pre-eminent under the leadership of James Byam Shaw, and Byam Shaw largely determined the direction of the firm after Mayer's death in 1954 until his own retirement in 1968. The gallery was involved in the sale of an outstanding collection of prints by the Prince of Liechtenstein.
As Thesiger also wished to retire, and John Baskett wanted to start his own business, Jacob Rothschild bought the company in 1970. He sold Colnaghi to the Oetker Group in 1981, owned by a Colnaghi client Rudolf Oetker. Colnaghi expanded in the buoyant art market of the 1980s, opening a gallery in New York in 1983. Changing market conditions led to the closure of the print and watercolour departments in 1989, followed by the closure of Paris gallery and then Colnaghi New York in 1996. In 2001, the Oetker Group sold Colnaghi to Konrad Bernheimer, owner of Bernheimer Old Masters in Munich which had been founded in 1864. Colnaghi was merged with the gallery run by Katrin Bellinger, and Bellinger took charge of the Colnaghi drawings department.