A look at the reclusive art collector renowned for his connections, his discretion, and his secret stash of multi-million-dollar masterpieces
One evening last November, at the Sotheby’s auction in the ROM’s Currelly Gallery, Ash Prakash entered into a heated bidding war with David Loch, a Winnipeg-based art dealer. The coveted object was a dreamy, impressionistic early-20th-century canvas by the Quebec artist James Wilson Morrice entitled Evening Stroll, Venice, which depicts a moody twilight scene of women bustling past the gondolas on the lagoon. Prakash wanted the painting for his personal collection, and put in several bids. He paused as the price soared over a million—he hadn’t expected the piece to be so dear. He knew through the grapevine that Loch was bidding on behalf of a client, which only hardened his resolve: he was spending his own money, and he was determined to win.
After a tense tussle, Prakash prevailed with a bid of $1.5 million, setting the evening’s record price. He scooped up two other paintings by Morrice that night: a sketch for $83,000 and a garden scene for $232,500. It was a triumph for Prakash, but not an unusual night’s work. His other record-smashing purchases in recent years have included Tom Thomson’s Pine Trees at Sunset, for nearly $2 million in 2008, and the following year, at a Heffel Fine Art auction in Toronto, four landmark Group of Seven works for which he racked up a bill of nearly $9 million in one night.
Ash Prakash. A wizard’s name. Soft on consonants, couched in rhyme. The perfect name for the retiring man who, over the past three decades, has quietly built a reputation as the pre-eminent authority on blue-chip Canadian art, buying paintings for himself as well as a group of wealthy collectors who pay for
Now Prakash is determined to push the objects of his adoration into the international spotlight. Late last year, he helped organize the first international Group of Seven show at a major European museum, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. The show, which got rave reviews, went on to tour Norway and the Netherlands and contains significant pieces from Prakash’s own collection (most notably a room full of Lawren Harrises). It will make its final stop at the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg next month. Prakash’s hope is that the exhibit will help boost the profile of Thomson, Morrice and Emily Carr, and place them alongside Monet, Manet and Van Gogh in the world’s estimation. The show will also, of course, make the hundreds of artworks in his personal collection incalculably more valuable.
Prakash does not hand out business cards or have a company website. He operates below the radar. He is 66 years old and so relentlessly cordial, his manner so restrained, that he reminds me of one of those buttoned-down British Raj characters in a Forster novel. His modernist Rosedale house, which overlooks the ravine, contains only a tiny fraction of his massive collection of paintings—the lion’s share is in high-security storage facilities scattered around the city, the locations of which I’ve sworn not to reveal.
Prakash made his name bidding for Canada’s richest family, the Thomsons, who also happen to own the world’s largest, and most priceless, collection of Canadian art. He first worked for the patriarch, Ken, in the latter stages of his life, and later for his son David, who took over the family business, and with whom Prakash maintains a close friendship.
Like many professionals who work closely with the fabulously rich, he resists the word “client,” which he considers crass.
But for lack of a better word, his clientele currently consists of a few dozen families with whom he keeps in regular contact, including the grocery store magnate Donald Sobey, the GTA plastic surgeon Michael Weinberg, the co-founder of Sila Holdings and 24 Hour Fitness clubs Leonard Schlemm, the head of strategy at RBC Wealth Management Mark Fell and the movie producer Jake Eberts. Once every year or so, he invites his clients to view a small, meticulously curated catalogue of recent acquisitions in his tiny, nondescript rented office at Bloor and Avenue.
His route to success was unconventional: no Ivy League art history degree, Sotheby’s internship or eponymous gallery for him. Apart from some recreational painting as a child (a hobby for which he showed “limited promise,” he says), he did not take a serious interest in collecting art until his mid-30s.
His reputation is so lofty that most of the friends and associates I spoke to objected to labelling him an art dealer, despite the fact that he has, for 30 years, made a handsome living buying and selling paintings for profit. They prefer the term “collector” or even “connoisseur.” Prakash himself has a characteristically elegant way of sidestepping categorization: he simply doesn’t call himself anything at all.
A traditional dealer buys paintings with clients’ money in exchange for a commission. Prakash does it differently: he buys paintings with his own cash, either for his personal collection or with an individual collector in mind. He acts as a value investor, storing paintings in inventory and later selling them to collectors once the price has appreciated. “The way I work tends to baffle other dealers, who say, ‘Where’s his gallery?’ ‘Where’s his catalogue?’ ” he says. “But my way is to buy art that I love. Within my circle, if a collector comes to me and says, ‘I’m in a mood to acquire,’ then I’ll show what I feel like selling and put a price on it. It’s as simple as that.”
He has a better sense than anyone in the country of where, outside of the major public galleries, most of our great historical art is stashed—he keeps tabs on who buys what at auctions, and hears gossip from curators and other dealers. Mark Hilson, a partner at Toronto’s Romspen investment corporation and one of Prakash’s long-time clients, told me the story of how he once lost a signature Lawren Harris at auction to an anonymous bidder. “I regretted letting it go,” he says. “For two years afterward I kept thinking, ‘When does one like that come along?’ ’’ Prakash offered to help him find and obtain it. “It takes a great deal of delicacy and incisiveness to enter into,” Hilson says. After a month, Prakash found the Harris and convinced the owner to sell it to Hilson for just above the auction price.
Prakash was born in Ambala, India, a small city in the foothills of the Himalayas. At the age of 15, without consulting his parents, he entered an essay contest run by the U.S. State Department through the American embassy. His essay, called “Journey to the Moon,” examined the goals of the Kennedy space program. Thousands of children entered to win five prizes of a scholarship at an American school, one of which went to Prakash.
When he told his father, a physicist, that he was going to America, his dad objected. He felt his son was too young for such a journey. But by that point, Prakash, halfway to the moon himself, couldn’t be talked out of it. The trip took five weeks by boat, first to the Netherlands and then across the Atlantic to New York City. “The ship was transporting cattle on the lower deck, so it was very unpleasant,” he says. “I was lonely, lost and seasick—and at the same time, I knew there was no going back.” Prakash was sent to attend high school in Berkeley, California, where he was billeted by a Jewish-American couple, the Rosens, who became his second family. He eventually went on to study business management at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, putting himself through school by working part-time in a bar and a gas station. It was at Michigan that he met and fell in love with a Canadian student.
He believes the early difficulties of his immigration were formative. “I think everyone should go through that in life. Struggle gives you a zenith from which you must focus on moving ahead.” He smiles and articulates an Eastern metaphor in faintly accented English: “From this corner comes a lotus in a cesspool.”