More MS news articles for Mar 2002

A life's work sold in a single stroke: Wildlife painter Richard Berghammer says the $7-million sale of his collection couldn't have come at a better time

Mar 2, 2002
Financial Post - Canada

Richard Berghammer has sold his life away and he seems pretty happy about it. A Chinese electronics mogul recently paid $7-million for a collection of Mr. Berghammer's wildlife paintings in a deal that should end a lifetime of financial hardship for the Elliot Lake, Ont.-based artist. The collection represents nearly 80% of the work ever completed by the 62-year-old painter.

"He bought the lifetime of one man," Mr. Berghammer says. "That's the gist of it."

The sale's timing is poignant given that Mr. Berghammer suffers from multiple sclerosis, and over the past decade the disease has made it increasingly difficult for him to continue working.

"I'm pretty much guided by this damn disease," he says, "and now it hurts me to pick up a brush."

Financial security may offer cold comfort given Mr. Berghammer's flagging health, but the sale also amounts to overdue recognition for the artist and his unusual work. The artist paints on leather, not canvas, employing high-spirit dyes in the place of traditional watercolour or oil paints.

Each work begins with Mr. Berghammer carving the leather with a knife. He then pushes and pulls at the leather to give it a three dimensional effect. If the carving goes poorly, he scraps the piece before the painting even begins.

But if he's satisfied, Mr. Berghammer begins the labourious process of applying dye to the leather, spending an average of 400 to 500 hours on a single work. Large pieces, like his seven foot long dogsled team, or his four foot by five foot image of a polar bear, can take up to 1,500 hours.

As far as he knows, he is the only artist in Canada, and perhaps the world, to use this technique to turn cowhide into fine art.

The time and effort required to complete a single painting has made Mr. Berghammer unwilling to part with them over the years.

"It's been pretty difficult to make a living without selling," he says, "but nobody would pay a decent price. If I had wanted a couple of thousand dollars for one, a lot of people would have been interested. But I wasn't prepared to just give them away. They represent an awful lot of work."

He had managed to sell a few of his leather works, and he'd supplemented his income through the sale of less-expensive (and less labourious) canvas paintings. Still, he says he wouldn't have survived without the support of his parents. "Whenever I needed money I called my mother," he says, "she was so faithful."

The artist's family played a pivotal role in the development of his unusual oeuvre. His father was the local harness maker in Lloydminster, Alta., where Mr. Berghammer learned the family trade.

"My father taught me how to mark and write on the leather," he says, "He always wanted me to make rosettes for saddles, which I thought was kind of a dead end job. So eventually, I gave that up and started painting wildlife instead."

In 1989, the sale of 55 of his paintings to a European company gave Mr. Berghammer his first taste of financial success. It also taught him a harsh lesson about the art business. While press reports at the time valued the deal at about $5-million, the final payout was far less.

"We had a lot of trouble with that deal," he says. "We thought we would get $30,000 for each painting, and we ended up with $11,000 a piece. But you live and learn. I had never done anything like that before."

Still, that sale allowed Mr. Berghammer to buy a house in Elliot Lake and move from the suburbs of Toronto.

"I came up here for a place to paint," says Mr. Berghammer, noting that Elliot Lake brings him close to the natural subjects he prefers, "and I've got a beautiful home. It's just a little place. I've got paintings from the floor to the ceiling. There are even some on the ceiling now. People come in here and they can't believe it."

Visitors from the United States, Italy and Great Britain have come to Mr. Berghammer's art laden home, all drawn by his advertisements in newspapers and magazines seeking potential buyers for his work. Indeed, it was an advertisement placed in a Hong Kong daily newspaper -- an ad that also ran in New York, Washington and Vancouver -- that attracted his most recent patron.

The identity of the wealthy customer is a secret. "He is a very touchy person," explains Mr. Berghammer. "He owns an electronic company or something. He's a little bit afraid of the Chinese government. They are not happy when that kind of money leaves the country."

The painter says he would have preferred to keep his work in Canada, but it wasn't possible. "Some people say that I'm a traitor for selling it out of the country, but there's no one in Canada that would buy it," he notes, "What are you going to do? Nobody here has the money."

As for the $7-million, Mr. Berghammer laughed at suggestions he could invest it. Instead, he plans to pay for his daughter's university education and donate a significant chunk to charity. "I've got my eye set on bailing out an Easter Seal camp that's just south of Elliot Lake," he says. "They need quite a bit of money, and I think I'll give them about a half a million right away."

While Mr. Berghammer's plan to give away much of his newfound wealth may seem surprising, it's consistent with his community-minded nature. When he lived in suburban Toronto Mr. Berghammer invited school groups into his studio for free tours, and for the last several years he has hosted a Christmas dinner in Elliot Lake for neighbours who would otherwise be alone for the holidays.

Whatever money Mr. Berghammer doesn't donate will be used to maintain his beloved house and to make life easier for him. "People keep saying 'Go south, go south,' but that's not really a thing for me any more," he says. "I just want to be able to pay my bills with a little more ease."

With several million dollars in his bank account, that really shouldn't be a problem.

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