He wants you to love our art
When Toronto's Ash Prakash bid $1.9-million on a Tom Thomson oil sketch last May, he did what he normally does after single-handedly boosting the value of a historic Canadian work - he tried to slip out the door.
Reporters besieged Mr. Prakash. They wanted to know why he had spent so much on Pine Trees at Sunset, a work that a New York gallery owner had purchased less than a decade earlier for a mere $189,000, and which now hangs in Mr. Prakash's Rosedale home.
To get to the heart of that question, you would have to ask another one: Who is Mr. Prakash? It turns out he is the most influential Canadian art collector and dealer you have never heard of. "He's always shunned the spotlight," says Michael Weinberg.
The Toronto plastic surgeon is one of Mr. Prakash's clients.
"But if you were to shine one on [Mr. Prakash] you'd see he's the most powerful art dealer in the country."
Mr. Prakash, who is in his early 60s, is now collaborating with David Thomson - no relation to Tom - on choosing and hanging works from the Thomson family's celebrated private collection for the Art Gallery of Ontario, which opens to the public on Nov. 14.
The unveiling will be the culmination of Mr. Prakash's long relationship with Canada's wealthiest family. He was a trusted adviser to Mr. Thomson's late father, Ken, and helped him acquire works by Cornelius Krieghoff, James Wilson Morrice, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald and Tom Thomson, among others.
"My father would often mention Ash late in his life, as they shared a deep friendship," Mr. Thomson said. "Ash and I met and forged a strong rapport soon after my father's passing. ... The two of us hold strong beliefs and we celebrate each exchange, however volatile."
Mr. Prakash is sacrificing some of his carefully guarded anonymity for the sake of Independent Spirit, a glossy new hardcover he has written about Canadian women painters from 1850 to 1940. He spent five years researching and writing the 410-page tome, which features the work of trailblazers like Emily Carr, the lesser-known Mabel May and modernists such as Marcelle Ferron and Paraskeva Clark.
"I have been at the centre ... of Canadian art for the last 30 years, but the fact that I have kept a low profile reflects how I think," Mr. Prakash said in a rare interview. "I personally believe that the enjoyment of art is a deeply felt passion, and there is a certain solitary element to that enjoyment. I have clients as reclusive as I am."
Mr. Prakash is also the author of Canadian Art: Selected Masters from Private Collections, which was published in 2003 and sold 5,000 copies in French and English. He knows too well that books on Canadian art are not big sellers. "This is the national tragedy," he said. "People don't want to know about their own culture."
It's an especially sore point for Mr. Prakash, a physicist's son of Indo-Egyptian heritage who moved to Canada from India, via California, in 1968, when he was 23 years old.
He bought his first Canadian painting nearly 35 years ago. It was an impressionistic Maurice Cullen landscape he saw in a Montreal gallery window. Mr. Prakash walked in and asked the late art dealer Walter Klinkhoff how many visitors he was expecting at his Cullen retrospective. Only 300 at most, Mr. Klinkhoff replied.
"I almost cried," Mr. Prakash recalled.
"I thought, this is a new country! Where is the vision? It might seem strange for someone of my background, a new Canadian, being so passionate about the subject. But I am. It's always troubled me that the multicultural policies of our nation have led it away from an understanding of its own roots. ... In my small way, I am trying to rectify that."
The desire has propelled Mr. Prakash's life's work.
The divorced father of two grown children is short and slender, a fastidious dresser who walks with a slight limp because of a weak ankle.
He has two science degrees, but no formal education in art history or visual arts.
"Van Gogh never took a lesson in painting," Mr. Prakash said. "Now, I'm not comparing myself to Van Gogh, but there lies the issue. There are certain forces in life that are just intuitive."
While working in Ottawa as an adviser on information management in the governments of Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, he taught himself art history, gathered an impressive art collection of his own and built his reputation as a dealer. He has helped place works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and others in private collections in Canada, he says.
Today, he runs an art consulting business out of his home, with help from son Tony, and shares his passion as leader of an informal posse of collectors in Toronto. The group, which includes Dr. Weinberg and his physician wife Laura Schiffer, collectors Fred and Beverly Schaeffer, former Goldman Sachs Canada chair George Estey, gallery owner Alan Loch and investment manager Richard Self, meets six times a year to discuss papers each writes on specific works.
Independent Spirit is also part of Mr. Prakash's quest to expose Canadians to their own art.
Published late last month, the book has already won accolades from such art connoisseurs as Guy Wildenstein, director of the highly regarded Wildenstein Institute in Paris. He called it "a pioneering book."
Closer to home, David Silcox, president of Sotheby's Canada, which sold Mr. Prakash the Tom Thomson last spring, described the book as "an amazing accomplishment."
"He's done a lot of original research, and he writes particularly well. He's passionate about Canadian art, as this book shows."
Mr. Prakash's scholarly bent is what distinguishes him from other private art dealers, says newer client Mike Tims, vice-chair of the board of trustees of the National Gallery of Canada.
Working with Mr. Prakash is a one-on-one tutorial in Canadian art history, he said.
"He can analyze a work and then describe how it fits into the artist's entire body of work ... he will tell of the work's uniqueness or rarity, and whether or not the collector is likely to ever have the opportunity to buy a comparable work again."
He is already turning a keen eye to this fall's art auctions, in particular the Sotheby's auction of Canadian art that will take place in Toronto at the end of November. Significant works are up for grabs, including rarely seen paintings by Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and Frederick Varley.
Mr. Prakash is expected to attend. But in keeping with his reclusive ways, he will not say if he is buying.
"In any event, it is not about me," he said. "It is about the art, I have always maintained that. I have looked at Canadian art when no one else wanted to, when there was no prestige to it. And I am
still looking at it, and still