Art is a tradition for the Klinkhoffs
Walter Klinkhoff, doyen of Montreal’s commercial art galleries, tells the story of a phone call from business tycoon E.P. Taylor: "Can you remove the office portraits of my predecessors and replace them with good Canadian paintings? Nothing too expensive. I know horses and nothing about art, and you know everything about art. And include a painting by my brother Fred, for sentimental reasons. We don’t speak to each other."
That story is typical of the confidence and trust that have built Klinkhoff’s international reputation ever since he began to sell art part-time from a Notre-Dame-de-Grâce duplex in 1950. Two years later he opened a small gallery on Union Street, then in 1955 he converted to a three-story Victorian fieldstone house on Sherbrooke West into Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, in the heart of the city’s cultural and financial excitement. It’s the oldest, continuous family-run art gallery in Montreal, and one of the most respected in Canada. Walter’s wife, Gertrude, is an active president and two sons, Alan, 36 and Eric, 40, are directors. And one day, perhaps, some of their children (Eric has two and Alan has four) may join the business.
"I had a long relationship with E.P.," Klinkhoff recalls. "He called one time to sell a Utrillo his wife disliked. He sent a photo and accepted my offer of $12,000 but after waiting three months I felt he deserved a higher price. Then one day he walked in with the painting, saying he had paid Blair Laing, a Toronto dealer, $1,000 and was happy to get back $12,000!"
Recent years have brought no visible changes to the conservatively run gallery, which specializes in Canadian paintings of all periods and French impressionist and post-impressionist masters. There’s nothing avant-garde on exhibit, no prints or ceramics, no weavings, photographs or lithographs.
"We don’t go for corporate art," explains Klinkhoff, "none of those decorator paintings for wall coverings. I don’t want to sell rubbish, to have to lie to people."
A practicing engineer during the war, Klinkhoff said he had no formal art education, stressing that degrees have nothing to do with expertise: "You need to see a lot of art, have an eye and a talent, like for music or poetry. You take enormous risks in the international market, you have to put your money where your mouth is and one mistake can be fatal. Your money is competing with the money market and the interest rates are high. But we’re in the business of buying and selling. We’re not the Salvation Army!"
His stories about artists and collectors are endless. "Mel and Mitzi Dobrin, the other Steinberg sisters and Mrs. Sam Steinberg were among my best customers. Sam had no interest in art and let his wife do all the buying. ‘Oh, you have another painting,’ he would tease her, which was often. We were their frequent guests in Florida.
"The Dobrins were voracious collectors who wanted only the best. Where some people might buy two Jacksons pr a few Harris paintings, they would purchase more. At the auction in 1986 of their Canadian collection, many records were set!"
Eric Klinkhoff recalls that auction as a fantastic experience. "There will probably never be anything like it again. Three quarters of that sale came from us and represented over a fraction of their collection."
Another great collector, says Walter, is lawyer Fraser Elliot, a founding partner of the firm Stikeman Elliot. "He would often buy by phone paintings that I would describe. He has always regretted selling a Picasso painting for double the $4,000 he paid because today it would be worth over $100,000.
"We exhibit paintings we admire," explains Eric, "that make you swoon, that reflect our expertise on quality and authenticity." He stresses the advantage of handling a limited range of works. "Some people might view this as a lack of ambition, and our accountants might think it a weakness not to imitate American dealers who have branches, lots of products and a big advertising budget. Our promotion has come from our paintings and clients. Some artists have been with us for 35 years, no one has a contract. Longevity means we’re not fly-by-nights. We’re here to stay."
It might be thought that a new, young and aggressive breed of collectors, many into contemporary and outré styles, would be pressing the gallery to rethink its direction and long range goals.
Not at all, according to Eric: "We have our niche and track record; our forte is Canadian and we don’t have to have everyone as a customer. There has been a generation cycle. Our grandparents collected Coburn and the Group of Seven, our parents dipped into abstract work and now my generation is back to traditional art in a big way."
What has clearly and radically altered the gallery scene are auctions. When, in 1987 Japanese interests bid $39.9 million (U.S.) for Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then 53.9 Million (U.S.) for his Irises, the art world was severely jolted.
"The international market has overtaken the Montreal market," observes Walter. "We have never dealt with oil sheiks and there are no Canadian collectors – and few works of art around – in those price ranges."
Few dealers are in a position to bid close to a million dollars at auction for a painting. "We can do so," remarks Eric, "but since prices are still climbing, we’re sitting on that part of the market until calmness and stability return. Still, there are a lot of good collectors here who are holding onto their possessions despite those high prices."
Art dealers are not without complaints, chiefly about competition from tax-free institutions such as museums. "It’s unfair for museums to be running a business," says Walter, "with volunteer staff and none of the overhead of a commercial gallery, with all our tax money."*
This hasn’t dampened family enthusiasm for what Walter describes as "basically a very nice business. On my office wall is a motto: What you buy is your business. What I sell is my business."
Today Walter Klinkhoff is just as likely to be found in summer playing a vigorous game of doubles at the Mount Royal Tennis Club. Once a fierce interclub competitor, he now leaves that role to Eric. At work, too, Eric and Alan have taken over much of the gallery’s daily operations. "However," Walter said, "for authenticating paintings, they still defer to me."
*In 2008 The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts canceled their art sales and rental program but many other museums still maintain them