Klinkhoff: the art of the dealer

The Walter Klinkhoff Gallery will never sell you a ‘piece of rubbish’

ALAN D. GRAY – Special to the Gazette
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL
Monday, October 24, 1994

As a favor to a hungry family friend in Austria, in the days following WWII, Walter Klinkhoff agreed to try and sell six of the man’s paintings on his return to Montreal.

In short order Klinkhoff, a junior engineer at Canadian Liquid Air in Montreal, found an art dealer who bought the canvasses, and then 300 to 400 more by the same artist. Payment to the ravaged country was in the form of food parcels.

The transaction did more than feed a hungry artist. It helped make Klinkhoff a leader in buying and selling Canadian art. Today, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff Inc. on Sherbrooke St. is a family affair: four of the seven employees are Klinkhoffs.

The gallery sells 500 to 600 paintings a year. Some are from the 25 contemporary artists it represents – a group the director of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Shirley Thomson, calls, “a fine stable of Canadian artists.” The rest of the works are by deceased Canadians and French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Klinkhoff is choosy about the art he handles. “I am not going to hang something on the wall that I will have to tell you is a piece of rubbish”, he says.

He is highly regarded by his artists, some of whom have been with him for decades. They determine the selling prices for their canvasses, but Klinkhoff always collects one-third of the price as a commission.

That’s exceptionally favorable to the artists, in a field where a commission of 40 per cent is common and 60 per cent not unheard of.

Even when the gallery lowers the retail price in the face of an immovable buyer, said Klinkhoff’s son Alan, commission is calculated on the initial asking price. If a $1,000 canvas is reduced to, say, $900, the painter still receives $666.66.

With artists scrambling to find dealers to show their wares, and with his Gallery’s national reputation, Alan Klinkhoff said he could easily get a higher commission. Yet he considers 33 1/3 per cent fair. Furthermore, the low rate serves as a magnet.

“We want to be offered the best paintings,” he remarked.

Montreal artist Bruce Le Dain, who deals with several galleries, said it’s largely because of the Klinkhoff that his works have reached Europe and South America.

There are other reasons Le Dain calls the gallery exemplary. Payment is usually made the week in which a work is sold, a speed uncommon in the industry. And the Klinkhoffs are considerate.

“They’ve never lost a painting, never scratched a frame, never told me what to paint,” said Le Dain, a past president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

Klinkhoff’s sons – Alan, 41, and Eric, 45, – have spent their careers in the business, and handle the much of the buying and selling. (The third child, Alice, 43, is a rheumatologist in Vancouver.)

Walter Klinkhoff’s Scottish-born wife of 46 years, Gertrude, 68, is office manager. Walter Klinkhoff, 75, said he’s the oldest art dealer in Canada and, although he claims he is “pretty well retired,” he works every day, advising on acquisitions and cleaning paintings.

The family also has an established and solid reputation among art collectors.

Bram Garber, chairman and chief executive of Peerless Carpet Corp., made his first fine art purchase, two small John Little oils, in 1963. He estimates their value has soared to $3,000 to $4,000 each from $125.

Garber, who has become a connoisseur, still includes the Klinkhoff in his network of dealers.

“Because of their diligence as a group, the Klinkhoffs have a better than average eye for painters or which new painting to promote,” he said.

Allan Case, in 20 years as a collector, has made most of his purchases at the Klinkhoff.

“They take a lot of trouble with their clients, to explain about the painting you’re looking at, why it is something special,” said Case, a vice-president at investment dealer Scotia McLeod Inc.

The Klinkhoffs own the gallery building. They operate on three floors, and rent the top two to their neighbor, Maison Alcan.

The address is prestigious, and cheques from Alcan provide what Walter Klinkhoff calls “a nice rent.” Despite those advantages, and despite the fact that, in his words, “some of our clientele are not that affected by the recession,” the gallery has not escaped the downdraft.

Montreal is home to fewer head offices, a traditional outlet for better art. Those that are here, buffeted by the slump, no longer buy lavishly to decorate their executive suites.

“They don’t pay high dividends,” Klinkhoff said. “They’re afraid of criticism if they add too much art.”

Other factors also challenge the Klinkhoffs. Alan Klinkhoff thinks the gallery building and its swanky location frighten away some prospective clients.

“There’s something about being on Sherbrooke St., in a nice building with steps going up, that people are intimidated about coming in,” he remarked.

Prices for all but the most expensive paintings have tumbled sharply in the last three or four years. Further, the supply of masterpieces is static.

“There aren’t, obviously, new paintings from the 1850s being painted today,” Alan Klinkhoff said.

The Klinkhoffs have, however, had strong suits. One is a reputation nurtured for more than 40 years. Most collectors in Canadian and Impressionist art, Alan Klinkhoff maintains, “will likely have heard of us.”

Another advantage, he continued, is the presence of four dedicated family members. “We have the expertise and put in the time.”

The Klinkhoff is also known for its yearly non-selling, or museum-style, retrospective shows. The latest, offered for two weeks last month, featured 45 works by Albert H. Robinson.

The Klinkhoffs consider Hamilton-born Robinson a great painter who had never received proper recognition in Montreal, where he spent 50 years.

Alan Klinkhoff also called the retrospectives “a tremendous public relations” exercise, designed to attract students and to help dispel the notion that the Klinkhoff Gallery sells only high-priced canvasses.

On display now is a $160,000 painting (by the late Marc-Aurèle Fortin, a Montrealer), but prices start from $600. The biggest selection ranges from $1,500 to $3,000.

The gallery has a list of about 1,350 clients who have bought in the last 24 months. Annual revenues have been static for the last two years, at $5 million to $6 million, said Walter Klinkhoff.

The business has always been profitable, and, he contended, he has never lost money on a painting.

Born in Austria, he was interned in Canada early in the war. Before it ended, however, he was helping to build corvettes for the Allies, and became a citizen in 1945.

He tells the story of berating A.Y. Jackson for selling his works too cheaply. ‘”I have so much fun painting,’” the celebrated artist replied, “‘I really should give them away.’”

Walter Klinkhoff, a self-described cheapskate who takes dead aim at the bottom line, isn’t about to go that far himself.

“I’m not going to say I should give any (paintings) away,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s been a lot of fun over the years.”

Copyright © The Gazette, Montreal

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