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His galleries are hung with an array of original Canadian works, covering the spectrum from historical pieces by the Group of Seven, to modern giants like Joseph Plaskett and E.J. Hughes.
But what does Gunter Heinrich hang on the walls of his own waterfront pied-à-terre, just a skipping stone’s distance from his Oak Bay office at the Winchester Gallery?
Here he reveals a private side of himself that few have seen. He has created a personal gallery by the sea, in a small condo bought just over a year ago, which he gutted, then filled with mostly porcelains, including the famous hard-paste Meissen china made in Germany over the past 300 years.
“I have another home on Ten Mile Point, which is a West Coast John Keay design, and I keep my contemporary work there, but this place has a more antique feel,” explained the collector, who began his career working with flowers and plants.
“So I decided this was the place for porcelains. I was going to go minimalist here originally,” he said with a smile, but once he started renovating, he decided the interiors lent themselves to a sophisticated European style.
The space is small, but the artistic statement is large and it was possible in part because he created more space in the two-bedroom condo by removing several walls.
All the suite’s floors are now laid with antique oak over cork, the lighting is gallery style, heat registers are framed in marble, drapes are thanks to Sharon Turnbull at the Finished Room and he plans to install granite on all the windowsills.
He turned the living area into one large space by opening up the kitchen and redesigning it with the help of Urbana Kitchens. “I widened the counter on the living-room side, adding more cabinets underneath, and extended the upper wall cabinets into the living area slightly.”
By removing a wall between two small bedrooms, he created one spacious room with a desk at one end and four antique cabinets. “Most are French, from about 1860 and later, with ormolu and Watteauish-style scenes.” (Ormolu is a rich-looking, gold-coloured veneer used on metal or furniture to imitate real gold.)
One of the cabinets is 18th-century Dutch and extremely narrow, designed to fit the small houses of the day.
Heinrich enlarged the bathroom by taking out a hall closet and a small storage room, then lined the room with marble and visually expanded it further by completely mirroring the back of the door and cutting out a hole for the doorknob.
After losing all that storage he decided to create more in the bedroom by designing a wall of mirrored closets, to give sea views from every angle.
Also in the bedroom is a spectacular sculpture from the collection of Mario Lanza. A dealer in London told Heinrich it was originally from a palace in France but Heinrich found it in Mexico. He was worried about shipping from there and bought the merchant some packing foam himself. “It arrived in perfect condition — and the foam was still damp.”
What is the appeal of these fine terracottas and delicate figurines?
“It’s the composition. Many sculptures have just one good side, but these are beautiful from all sides,” he said. “I have been collecting them for about 20 years and once you start with Meissen, there is nothing finer. Even Sevres. It is magnificent, but not the same. You can put these faces under a magnifying glass and they still look perfect.”
Some of his pieces are being lent to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for a show being curated by Patricia Kidd, called Part of My Past: Objects as Identity. The exhibition opened Friday.
Heinrich’s passion for collecting started as a young lad. His German father came from a wealthy family and had grown up surrounded by great beauty and art, but the war came and they lost everything. His father studied horticulture in Halle, East Germany, and came to Canada in 1954 where he started a wholesale nursery. Heinrich worked there for 18 years, until his parents retired, and did everything from selling and growing to planting and delivering three truckloads of material every day.
“My father was always talking about Durers and Meissen porcelains — and all these things really spoke to me. My interest in art and antiques came automatically from him,” Heinrich said.
“I started going to swap and shops at Tillicum mall. I’d see things, and then go to the library for hours doing research.” He finished school by correspondence and was used to being self-taught.
He moved into the art business in 1994 and well remembers chatting to Bernie Raffo, from whom he bought the gallery. Raffo asked if he had any experience and Heinrich said no, but showed him a tall stack of photos of things he had collected. “I had built up a very large collection for my parents, and then started one for myself. I still remember Bernie saying, ‘Hmm, I think you know what you’re doing.’ ”
Heinrich had a naturally discerning eye from a young age.
“I went into a carpet shop in Vancouver 25 years ago, looked around and as I was leaving the owner asked which carpet I liked best. Of all the hundreds on display I told him my favourite, and he said it was $95,000 — the most expensive in the place.”
Another time, on another continent, he was drawn to a small porcelain in an exclusive antique store. The dealer again said he had zeroed in on the most valuable piece there.
But one extraordinary purchase got away from him.
Heinrich was again at the Tillicum swap and shop years ago, and spied two vases. “The woman was asking $50 and I didn’t have $5, but I went to the library, did some research and realized they were by Augustus Rex. I convinced my dad to give me the money and rushed back, but she was gone.” Today, he said, the two pieces would probably be worth $500,000 to $600,000.
That taught him to trust his instincts, and to follow the rule: “You don’t hesitate in front of a masterpiece.”
He offers these hints to those wanting to start collecting:
• Buy what you love, but do some studying first. “Most people start out with decorative art and move into fine art once they learn more. This is not to knock decorative art, but generally it has no real meaning. It is created to match the sofa.”
• Take the advice of a dealer. “I do this myself. I talk to several dealers in London and would rather pay more, get some advice and buy something important.” Mark Law, a director at Albert Amor in St. James, London, is one of his most valued contacts.
• Look at good art in museums, galleries and stores. “You have to experience great art, see the real thing — or you won’t understand. If you are really interested, a dealer may let you hold something, and you learn from that, too, because you feel the density, see the crisp details up close.”
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