Patrick Berko, born in 1950, is the son and grandson of well known Belgian antique dealers. When in his teens, he planned on becoming a painter and, for a short while, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts at Tournai. "Giving that up", he says, "was probably one of my greatest services to the art world". Following in the footsteps of his family seemed more appropriate.At first, he specialized in paintings, silverware and numismatics but soon he concentrated on paintings only, particularly the works of the Academic, Romantic and Realistic artist of the 19th century, an immensely fertile period whose neglected riches he began to explore with love and tenacity.
Viviane, a Flemish girl who had spent her childhood in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), began working with him when he was 18 and she three years his junior. She fully shared his enthusiasm and together they brought to light and studied what had been virtually ignored for several generations. They both see their work as part of the creative process which starts with the painter's first brush stroke. Patrick says : "I get my satisfaction out of discovering paintings. That's the creative part of my work. In fact, I buy a painting because I admire the quality of it".
Patrick Berko waxes lyrical as he points out the detail in a seascape or landscape, the glowing colors in a still-life, the intimate quality of a fine portrait. "Actually", says Viviane, "he is more of a collector than a dealer. Sometimes, I have to put a brake on his enthusiasm and remind him that our profession also has a selling side. And it's amazing how he keeps finding good works.Of course, we have our tipsters and scouts, but when Patrick starts hunting where they've already been, he often strikes gold where the others haven't found anything".
In less than ten years, this astonishing husband-and-wife team have realized ambitions that would have taken others the best part of a lifetime to fulfill. They had their own gallery in the elegant Flemish seaside resort of Knokke when they were still in their twenties. Moreover, they have taken part in most of the international Arts and Antiques fairs – Paris, London , Florence, Monaco, Chicago, New York, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Palm Beach, Beverly Hills, Maastricht, Moscow and in October 2007 Shanghai – ideal occasions for showing the flag. In addition, they became parents to a son (Maximin, 1978) and a daughter (Irina, 1984), seeing "a king's wish come true", as they say in these parts.
The long neglect from which these "Minor Masters" of the 19th century have suffered, although many of them are the technical equals of the 17th century Dutch School, gives the Berkos considerable scope for building up and renewing their collection. But the "missionary" work they have done on their behalf has stimulated public interest and has made them both rarer and more expensive. Patrick Berko readily admits that. "In fact, I'm making my own work more and more difficult. I have to work harder to find what I want and because I have helped to revive the taste for them, I have to pay more and more. But that's the game I like."
However, the Berkos went even further in their missionary zeal by publishing books on their favorite painters and on various aspects of their chosen period. Their first publication was a monograph on the famous landscape and animal painter Eugène Verboeckhoven (1798-1881), lavishly illustrated, with a text in French, English, Dutch and German. Even the most intrepid art sponsor would have baulked at the cost of such an undertaking but Patrick and Viviane went ahead, paid for the entire production and saw their selfless efforts rewarded when the book sold out.
This success in 1981 encouraged them to embark on an even more ambitious project, a "Dictionary of Belgian Painters born between 1750 and 1875", a fully illustrated standard work of over 900 pages, now known in art circles as "The Berko". "You're giving away your trade secrets", a journalist told Patrick Berko when this massive tome was presented to the press. "Maybe", he replied, "but I want the public to be educated and informed.Then they'll understand real quality and they'll see why these works must fetch good prices".
Meanwhile, the Berkos found another aspect of "their" period in the "Orientalists", those Romantic and Realist painters who drew their inspiration from Turkey and the Arab world. "Orientalists" were also to be found in Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and the United States. The Berkos brought them all together in a handsome volume entitled "Realist Orientalism in the XIXth Century", with a text by Philippe Cruysmans (1982). It was very quickly sold out.
The "Orient" (at the time, this term indicated the Middle East rather than the countries beyond) was all the rage among the 19th century bourgeoisie in France, Britain and Germany, and painters could barely satisfy the demand for Touareg warriors, the decadent languor of the harem, the bustle of an Arab market or the mystery of the desert which the artist would paint upon his return home.Needless to say, the "Orientalist" volume was highly appreciated by Arab visitors who were fascinated to see how their own not so distant past was seen by European artists.
A fourth publication followed in 1985, " Seascapes in Belgium", again a complete inventory giving biographical details and including a wealth of full-color reproductions of the principal works.
In 1986, the Berkos created a monograph on Fernand Toussaint, followed by Georges Lemmers, Paul Leduc, Paul Mathieu, Caroline Stienon-Dupré other Belgian painters, excelling in portrait, still-life and landscape. They also published the "Dictionary of Animal Painters" and "Dictionary of Flower Painters".
Publications all paying tribute to a period which began with Delacroix and ended with the nostalgic works of the turn-of-the-century "Belle Epoque". Few art dealers would have had the generosity of rendering such justice to the splendors of the once despised "Victorian Era". Patrick Berko is often asked if the 19th century masters are a good investment and his first reaction always is : "Don't ask me, I love them ! Don't forget that we started buying 19th century paintings for that very reason, we love them, we just followed our own taste. Take the Orientalists. We started buying them long before others had taken any notice. Quality was and is our criterion, not fashion or name".
Viviane joins in with : "The current taste for 19th century art is not a matter of fashion. These paintings will always be admired". So they are a good investment ? "Yes", says Patrick, "because these works will be loved as long as there are collectors with a taste for good painting as such, good workmanship, and who are sensitive to the charm, the delicacy and the 'finesse' of the scenes painted, be it portraits, landscapes, seascapes or genre pieces. My advice to any collector is, buy what you like and buy from a reputable dealer. Buy quality, not what's merely fashionable. And above all, look at paintings as often as you can. Educate yourself in appreciating what is good. That which is good can only increase in value.
Patrick and Viviane Berko are a wide-awake couple, operating strictly since 35 years and drawing on a vast experience. This accounts for their extraordinary success in the World.