Property from the Collection of Herbert and Adele Klapper
The story of Herbert and Adele Klapper is one of two individuals who, with characteristic zeal and unwavering enthusiasm, embraced a life surrounded by art and beauty. Across their fifty years of marriage, the Klappers undertook an inspiring journey in business, family, and collecting – a loving partnership that resulted in an extraordinary collection of fine art. From Monet’s luxuriant L’Escalier à Vétheuil; through Lautrec’s off-stage Danseuse; Picasso’s grand, neoclassical Femme accoudée and arresting 1924; an exceptional group of Degas bronze dancers; and Arp’s elegant, enigmatic Déméter, the threads of beauty and modernity run through the collection Adele and Herbert built together.
Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Herbert J. Klapper was the son of a sewing machine salesman; his future wife, Adele, was born three years later, also in Brooklyn, the daughter of European immigrants. Imbued by their parents with a determined work ethic and sense of purpose, both Herbert and Adele Klapper epitomized the aspirational ‘American Dream’ of the twentieth century. Mr. Klapper’s plans to study medicine were cut short by the onset of the Second World War, when he served as a radioman in the United States Navy. Mrs. Klapper, for her part, forewent college to help support her family. After returning from military service, Mr. Klapper began to work at his father’s sewing machine sales company in Manhattan’s Garment District; nearby, Adele Klapper was employed at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. A chance encounter between the young Herbert and Adele at a local luncheonette provided the spark for what would become a half century of marriage. Those close to the Klappers forever recalled a partnership of laughter and joy—a union in which disagreements could be solved through a fervent game of pinball, and in which the couple’s children and grandchildren were treasured above all else.
The Klappers’ tremendous accomplishments in business came after years of unstinting entrepreneurship and hard work, as Mr. Klapper transformed his father’s business into Superior Sewing Machine and Supply Corporation, the world’s leading purveyor of sewing machine parts and components. Perceiving the lack of affordable replacement parts for sewing machine dealers, Mr. Klapper was confident he could supply retailers with quality components at more reasonable prices. In the increasingly global market of the post-war era, he acquired economical alternatives from suppliers in Europe and Asia, all while providing clients with a personalized service and trustworthiness that came to define Superior Sewing. Across the latter decades of the twentieth century, Mr. Klapper continuously expanded his business with a focus on customers and innovative sales tools, including a groundbreaking print catalog—“We wrote the book on parts,” Superior proudly asserts—and advancements in data management and computers. In art, Mr. Klapper was able to utilize this same business acumen and attention to detail to the benefit of a remarkable private collection.
The Klappers made their initial foray into art almost by chance, after encountering prints by the American painter Will Barnet for sale at a Long Island gallery. When Mrs. Klapper told the gallery director she would like to obtain a work by the artist, she insisted on not an edition, but “a real one.” The purchase of one of Barnet’s visionary canvases was followed by years of self-erudition and passionate collecting—a pursuit of beauty that brought the couple even closer together as they shared insights and opinions on the art they loved. “For Herbie and Adele,” writes Brooklyn College professor Gerard Haggerty, “collecting art became both a monument to—and a conduit for—their deep and abiding love.” The Klappers were soon seen at galleries and auction houses, embracing a newfound pursuit that brought both intellectual stimulation and beauty to everyday life.
“Collecting,” Haggerty explains, “was a team sport for the Klappers.” The couple often took ‘turns’ acquiring works for their collection: Mrs. Klapper might make a selection one year, while her husband would suggest a purchase the next. “He was a lightning fast learner,” dealer Reese Palley recalled of Mr. Klapper. “In the beginning, we would look at pictures and he would ask me… for judgements of quality. In very short order… Herb stopped asking and started, with astounding intuition, to settle on truly great examples of the genre.” Mrs. Klapper even extended her own journey in art to higher education: in 1992, she was able to finally obtain a university degree from Long Island’s Adelphi University, and in 1999 she graduated from Adelphi with a Master’s degree in Art History. A longtime supporter of Adelphi, Mrs. Klapper was honored with the university’s President’s Medal of Merit and the Outstanding Service to Adelphi Award; in 2007, the university’s fine arts and facilities building was christened the Adele and Herbert J. Klapper Center for Fine Arts. Another philanthropic concern close to Mrs. Klapper’s heart was the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. When the collection was exhibited in a memorable show at the Beadleston Gallery in 2002 it was to benefit the hospital.
Working with prominent gallerists and auction house specialists, the Klappers steadily acquired important examples of Old Master paintings, Impressionist, and Modern art. The couple carefully curated their assemblage to focus on the very best by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Jean Arp, Claude Monet, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas. “It was an enormously effective working partnership,” Palley wrote, adding that some art dealers were surprised by the couple’s reciprocal acquisition process, in which each partner held veto power. “As Herb once said to me,” Palley mused, “when we were discussing a possible purchase about which Adele was a bit reluctant, ‘They’re in trouble if they underestimate Adele.’”
Beyond the art historical importance of the Klappers’ notable collection was the poignant and deeply personal relationship the collectors held with each painting and sculpture they acquired. More than a mere assemblage of painting and sculpture, these were cherished, enlightening works that magnified the couple’s signature joie de vivre. “When it came to collecting art,” Haggerty said, “the real meat of the matter involved discovering yet another passion that [Mr. Klapper] and his wife fully shared. It involved him waking up in the middle of the night, and wandering through the house, and standing in silent awe in front of things—things that he found to be indescribably beautiful, things that they had both claimed together.” With the passing of Herbert and Adele Klapper in 1999 and 2018, respectively, their exceptional private collection now moves to a new generation of collectors fueled by a similar desire for imagination, ingenuity, and discovery. As Palley so rightly observed, the Klappers’ story was not only one of “a great collectors’ partnership, but a lifelong love affair.”