The Collector: How Ash Prakash became the preeminent art dealer for the country’s wealthiest families

The Collector: How Ash Prakash became the preeminent art dealer for the country’s wealthiest families

A look at the reclusive art collector renowned for his connections, his discretion, and his secret stash of multi-million-dollar masterpieces

The Collector: How Ash Prakash became the preeminent art collector for the country’s wealthiest families

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
his expertise.

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.

The Collector: How Ash Prakash became the preeminent art collector for the country’s wealthiest families Last fall, Prakash bought James Wilson Morrice’s Evening Stroll, Venice for $1.5 million (Image: courtesy of Sotheby’s)

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.”

The Collector: How Ash Prakash became the preeminent art collector for the country’s wealthiest families Prakash has helped David Thomson build his massive collection of Canadian art

Prakash followed his girlfriend to Ottawa in 1968. He became a Canadian citizen and a rising star in the civil service. The couple married and had two children, Sangeeta, who’s now a lawyer, and Tony, a consultant who runs a small Toronto consulting firm called Max Pracash (a play on the family name). Prakash may well have remained settled in the comfortable existence of a bureaucrat if it hadn’t been for Paris.

In 1979, Prakash and his wife divorced and he left for Paris for a UNESCO government posting. There, his casual appreciation of art developed into a serious passion. He learned French and fell in love with the impressionists, spending every bit of his spare time wandering in the city’s great galleries and immersing himself in the art scene.

Tony remembers traipsing around those Paris galleries with his dad. On one occasion, at the Musée d’Orsay, Tony tried to impress his dad with his newly gleaned knowledge of art. “We were looking at a Monet and I said to him, ‘Wow, Dad, look at the use of pink.’ And he corrected me: ‘That’s not pink, it’s rose!’ ” The younger Prakash chuckles at the memory. “He wanted me to understand that pink is not pink when the light hits it at a certain time of the day.”

After a year in Paris, Prakash returned to Canada obsessed. He expanded his interest to Canadian art produced after the French impressionist era, travelling to Montreal, Toronto and New York to attend gallery openings and auctions, often just for one night. He fixated on the period beginning in the early 1890s, when modernism came to North America.

One of the early relationships Prakash made in his first days as a collector was with Vincent Fortier, an art dealer and gallery owner in Hull, Quebec, who became a close friend. The two men used to take road trips together on weekends to look at art. Fortier describes his old friend as quiet and diligent, and almost completely unafraid of risk. “When Ash was in front of an excellent painting, he never compromised on the price,” he says.

It was in Fortier’s company in the early ’80s that Prakash took his first substantial gamble, buying a Morrice at auction for $40,000—far more than he had ever spent on a painting before (he sold several other pieces to obtain it). Friends and colleagues thought he was crazy. The tiny picture—another of the artist’s Venice scenes—depicts the entrance to a cathedral near St. Mark’s Square. The painting remains in his personal collection to this day. “Back then you could buy a condo in Ottawa for that much,” Prakash says. “It was only four by five inches, but I loved it—it was so intricate and suggestive—so it had to
be done.”

Prakash estimates that the value of what he classifies as Canadian classic art (major works of signature subject matter by Harris, Thomson, Carr, Morrice, Milne and Riopelle) has risen as much as 10 times since he started seriously collecting. Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris canvases that could easily be had 20 years ago for $50,000, for example, are now selling in the low millions. He estimates his first Morrice is now worth around a quarter of a million. But it doesn’t matter, since he’s never going to sell it. His personal collection, he says, will one day go to his children and to charity.

He’s close to the Trudeau and Mulroney families—Ben Mulroney served as the MC at his son’s wedding

Prakash spent two decades in Ottawa, becoming one of the country’s highest-ranking bureaucrats and director of information management for the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. He was an advisor to the PMO under Pierre Trudeau and later Brian Mulroney. He was, by all accounts, a personal favourite of Trudeau’s, who once singled him out during a Privy Council meeting on bilingualism by noting that while many established Canadians have various issues with having two official languages, “Mr. Prakash, who came from a completely different culture originally, seemed to be having no trouble at all with either English or French.” He remains close to both the Trudeau and Mulroney families: Margaret Trudeau is a personal friend and Ben Mulroney was MC at Tony Prakash’s wedding.

Prakash left government in 1995 to pursue his artistic interests full-time and because, as he puts it, he was tired of politics. He relocated to Toronto, immersed himself in the world of blue-chip art and established a reputation for being true to his word. Trustworthiness is a highly prized quality in the art world—especially given the recent rise in forgeries and international scams. “Many high-end art and anti­quities dealers are basically hustling for a commission,” the movie producer Jake Eberts told me. Prakash has helped him build a substantial and growing collection of early-20th-century Canadian art. “Unlike Ash, they’re often indifferent to the genuine interests of the client.”

The market uncertainty in recent years has seen the rise of so-called alternative or non-traditional investments such as fine wine, cars and antiquities—objects that investors can touch and feel. There are still risks involved, however—collectors caught in the heat of the moment overbid at auction, and without an educated eye it’s possible to overpay. You won’t wake up one morning and find that the value of your Tom Thomson has evaporated as you might your stock portfolio, since there are fewer than 500 of them
in existence.

Prakash has an expert’s contempt for wealthy fools. “If you buy a $20-million house in Rosedale,” he says, “what are you going to do, keep the walls bare? But if you want something great, something that hits here”— he pounds his chest for emphasis—“that’s where I come in and the journey begins.”

David Thomson and Prakash meet and speak regularly to talk about art, often at Thomson’s Rosedale home, just a few blocks from his own. In an email, Thomson told me his “spirit is simply lifted” by his conversations with Prakash. He went on to describe him as “a passionate individual, with a tremendous sense of humanity” and someone who has, over the years, “accumulated enormous wisdom.…A curious and open mind would seem to define his approach to life.”

Prakash now owns all the art he will ever want. A collection, he says, is not simply about obtaining a series of objects, but about “constructing a vision of yourself—ultimately, art should teach us the value of having enough.”

As preparations ramp up for the return this fall of the international Group of Seven show to its spiritual home in the McMichael gallery, he’s organizing another big Canadian show at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, this one of the work of Emily Carr.

One afternoon this past spring, I met Prakash at his office. He wanted to take me on a tour of his collection. In the office, he had a small Picasso on an easel. It’s a still life of a bowl of cherries in a gilt frame, and Prakash explained that it was painted in 1943, shortly after the artist met his lover Françoise Gilot, whom he famously courted with the same fruit.

As we left the building, Prakash tucked the painting under one arm and a file of papers under the other. His car and driver were waiting on Bloor Street. Prakash casually tossed the Picasso in the front seat and hopped in the back with me so we could continue our conversation. I was amazed at how he handled a valuable work of art—how natural it was for him to be in possession of something that would seem, to most people, unnervingly precious.

He took me to one of his storage facilities, where I caught a glimpse of Prakash completely in his element. Among the dozens of priceless canvases on display, he showed me an exquisite 1950 Riopelle, from the Paris exhibit that made him Canada’s first internationally famous painter (“Look how he’s deconstructing the local colour of an object through the prism of the day”), an Alex Colville masterpiece of a soft female nude holding a pistol (“The female is powerful in terms of the mind but also in body—she can be deadly”), and a pre-war David Milne canvas of a woman sitting indoors on a sunny afternoon (“Look at the negative space—all the blankness where the light is striking—Cézanne started that”), as well as a vast array of extraordinary Group of Seven landscapes and a Krieghoff from the 1860s (“The colours are a way of life vanquished with time; only in Canada could you paint this scene”).

He paused at one of his favourites, a large Emily Carr called Bird With a Broken Wing. It’s a moody painting of an Aboriginal carving of a bird totem guarding a sleepy rural landscape. I made a comment about the twilight, but Prakash corrected me, pointing out that it’s actually dawn. “Look at the way the light breaks at the back,” he explained. “That’s because the bird is proud but broken. You see her use of pure, unmixed colour? That’s post-impressionist colour—it brings more of a kick to the stomach, it’s more acidic, more raw. The bird is guarding the yard, a new day is dawning, and she’s determined to protect what’s under her watch.” He looked at me and back at the painting. “Do you see?” he said. “Do you understand?”

I told him yes, I did. He appeared satisfied. Then he turned back to gaze at his collection.