A fabulous Canadian success story – and the lady who made it happen!

Esther Abigail Steinberg Cohen and PI FINE ART

Esther and I met over 50 years ago…BeforeBirthControl pills. Back then, Jewish girls had limited options. Getting us married was the first priority of our parents – going to Teacher’s College in order to get a job was another. Advanced university education? Not likely. As children of immigrants, having boarders in the house and being one step up from poverty was the reality for most. No holidays or cottages – occasionally a drive into Buffalo for a day would be it. Too many of us were “married off” while still in our teens. There were no dreams because we didn’t think that we had any choices.

As young mothers in the early sixties, the ‘girls’ went to Yorkdale for an outing – paid 50c for a cart and walked around and around in and out of the stores with our kids jumping up and down. Hard to believe given the options available today – but in order to really appreciate what Esther accomplished, you have to understand how it really was back then and how she “did it” in her own way.

Esther loved beautiful things – I asked her why and she just shrugged her shoulders. As the writer of this blog, I have to confess that I have absolutely no taste in art, design, clothes or decorating. My friends always offered to drag me out to shop or get a decorating lesson. It never helped.

Esther spent much of the spare time she had browsing in pawn shops and art galleries while the rest of us were off to the malls. Her husband was a dentist and they had 3 sons and she would often use her “household allowance” to buy posters and get them framed. She also loved to shop in antique stores and pawnshops and then decorate her house with her “finds”. Eventually her collections took up too much space in her home and she had to have an occasional garage sale to divest the surplus.

But all the while, a thought kept creeping into her head. She wanted to expand her world and she had to make a decision. What if? Dare she try? Yes, she would! So she went for it on her own, with only good taste as her partner. In the early 70’s she rented a 600 square ft store at Bathurst and Lawrence – called it Abigail’s Antiques and was now in the business of selling antiques and posters and other items that she found in her explorations.

However, there was a problem that she had not anticipated. She was located between a fish market and a bagel shop. No art lovers in the neighbourhood. If someone did come into her store they were looking for directions, not her posters.

Quote from Esther: “On Bathurst St. I did no business. No one came into the store. I would soon have to become an Avon lady.” She self-searched. “Who can buy my posters and then buy some more? Hotels! They had to have artwork on their walls – at least 3 per room”.

She found out that the Head Office of the Holiday Inns was located in London, Ontario. Wow! She called and spoke to the receptionist.

Is the owner of Holiday Inn in this office? The answer was YES. Will you put me through to him?”

In those days people actually answered phones, picked up flashing signals and in this case, that wonderful receptionist put her through to the Head Honcho. He told her that even though Holiday Inn had their own design firm, Associated Innkeepers, he would help her.  Those of us who know Esther are not surprised at her unique ability to charm even the most reluctant executive. He then gave Esther the name and the number of the Head Designer and told her to call him up and tell him that he should see her.

“Just tell him that the boss says so and if he doesn’t, you are going to let me know”.

Quote from Esther: “When I went to Associated Innkeepers, they loved the portfolio I had of new, fresh, modern posters. He said they were tired of only using the group of 7 which was the standard Canadian image. Two weeks later they came to my Bathurst St. store. They ordered 50 framed posters! Sounds great! But I didn’t know how to frame anything”.

Luckily Esther had been visited regularly by a poster frame salesman who was hoping that Abigail’s Antiques would make some sales and he would get her framing business. When she told him what had happened, he offered to help. He said, “you need to buy equipment. You are on a roll. Hire a framer – and you will be in business”. Esther followed his advice and was soon able to offer framing as a part of the package.

Her next visit was to McDonalds. Yes, that McDonalds. In the 70’s they were decorating their outlets – and they bought posters. She was excited to make some sales, but still wary.

Then she called the hotel that was the major game in town – the Royal York. And they bought posters. “This could be it” she thought, and hoped.

So she decided to go for it – to promote and publish posters from young contemporary artists, including Canadians. Canada had lots of great artists but was still known primarily for the Group of 7. She was going to promote modern contemporary art from all around the world.

Quote from Esther: “Then I met an art consultant and told him that I wanted to publish various artists’ works but didn’t know how to do it or even where to find the right artists. So he introduced me to BRIAN KELLEY – and his beautiful watercolours – peonies and plums. I knew nothing about publishing art – but I felt it. I loved the art so much. So I took another chance. I agreed to pay the consultant a finder’s fee and a royalty to Brian”.

Esther then went around with the posters trying to sell them to the framing stores. She decided to give out posters to different companies with this caveat: “If you sell a poster it is free – but then you have to buy another one from me for $10”.

They all sold the posters she had given them for free – but not one of them bought another. It was time to put Canada to bed – at least for a while – and try to make it importing art from the U.S.

By now Esther was on her own. Sales had started to pick up. Her marriage had ended. She was going to continue to try her hand at publishing posters from young contemporary artists. Then she met a photographer who wanted to open a photo shop. She thought two businesses might work better than one. He moved his photographs into her store. No business. So he took his photographs and moved to New York and opened a gallery. Nice.

Determined to expand the business and its sales, she got on a plane and went to New York to visit all her poster suppliers and see if she could learn something new.

Quote from Esther:   “I showed them my BRIAN KELLEY posters and they loved them. Each of my suppliers bought 100 of each package. In two days I sold ALL of my posters – 1,000 of them.

“I now had some extra money. I had just seen a promo of a Mick Jagger poster by Andy Warhol. I wanted it. I decided to go to Warhol’s Factory in Manhattan where they had “artists’ proofs (AP)

“I’m here to buy Mick Jagger” I told Andy Warhol’s agent, Vincent Freemont who was in the showroom. “Today is my birthday so perhaps you might like to give me that ‘tacky’ Mick Jagger up there on the wall”. I was kidding, of course.

“Is it really your birthday today?” he asked. I nodded.

“Wait here”. Then he walked out and came back with Andy Warhol. OMG! Now I almost did faint.

Andy Warhol said, “Happy birthday Esther – BUT – you can’t have that Mick Jagger on the wall. But I have something else for you. It is my book, “Philosophy of Andy Warhol”. And he inscribed it – ‘To Esther Abigail – Love, Andy Warhol”.

Esther then bought the original 10 Warhol portfolios of Mick Jagger. Then she bought Warhol’s newest portfolio – images of Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, George Gershwin, Sigmund Freud, Kafka, Louis Brandeis, and the Marx brothers. In the 80’s, they cost $10,000 a portfolio. Today a portfolio will sell for $400-$500,000 IF you can find one.

In 1985, Esther went to Lincoln centre to see their beautiful silk screen posters.

Quote from Esther: “They spoke to me about limited editions by a Canadian artist – JACK BUSH. They had published 200 but only sold 150 – terrible in their sales world. Interesting that Jack Bush is a well known Canadian artist – but not in N.Y. at that time. So I bought them for $100 each. I brought them home and sold them to my friends for $200 each, some of whom howled in protest. Today? They are worth $20,000 each. My friends are now devoted to me – ha.

“I was still in N.Y. when I visited a gallery in the Village. In those days, the Village was artsy – each gallery was seeking artwork more provocative than the next. One gallery owner, Ygal, was so happy to meet me because I was a Canadian. They had two Seragraphs and a painting by a Canadian artist– WILLIAM KURELEK that they couldn’t sell. I told them that I had no money to buy, but that I would make an exchange with them – 200 ManRay unlimited posters of peaches that I had just bought in Paris for Kurelek’s work. They agreed. Good deal”.

Esther was at the top of her game and the business continued to grow. She decided to bribe her sons with baseball tickets and sports events if they would occasionally accompany her to the U.S. She wanted them to see and learn firsthand exactly what the business was all about – and like many parents, hoped that they would take an interest beyond “what’s new at the showroom Ma?” And they did. They started at the bottom, went to university and then worked their way up. They are now the operating officers of PI Fine Arts.

Ten years ago, posters alone were no longer trendy and very few ever escalated in price. People were more affluent and wanted signed and numbered limited editions, original paintings, contemporary modern art. So PI Fine Arts changed with the times.

With sales now in the millions of dollars, they carry a wide range of art works. And their two subsidiaries, Art & Soul and the Esther Cohen Gallery add to their diversity. Names like Julia Opie, Jim Dine, Alex Katz, Robert Indiana, Brian Kelley and Romantini are just a few. They carry original art work, posters, prints on canvas, on acrylic, on wood – they manufacture mirrors – they have in-house printers that can reproduce anything at any size.

A quote from Esther: “I have sold more Monet waterlilies than Pusiteri has sold grapes”.

I did laugh at that one. Esther surprised me when she said that she had NEVER borrowed any money from the bank for the business. She used her sales to buy – when she didn’t have enough cash, she traded. I can remember my father telling me that he never borrowed money because he wasn’t sure if he could pay it back, so Esther’s background, like mine, denote the same rationale. For those of you much younger, we are from a dinosaur age – and a more balanced perspective.

So why did I decide to write this blog now? It is about all those women like Esther who strive, who dream, who work so hard to make it on their own, who hang in, and who eventually succeed. Kudos to all of you.

There are no platitudes in this story. Esther wanted something more – and she got it. She used her brain and her determination and her inherent good taste to create an international art business known around the world.

Her six grandchildren have an outstanding example of how special a woman can be – a woman who happens to be their Bubbie.

Yasher Koach Esther Abigail.