‘A great collectors’ partnership’: The Collection of Herbert and Adele Klapper

A look at highlights from the collection built by Herbert and Adele Klapper, which features works by Picasso, Monet, Pissarro and Degas, among other masters, and will be offered at Christie’s in New York


Herbert and Adele Klapper

Across their 50 years of marriage, Herbert and Adele Klapper built an extraordinary collection of fine art. Threads of beauty and modernity run through each work the couple acquired, among them Claude Monet’s L’Escalier à Vétheuil;  Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s Danseuse; Pablo Picasso’s grand, neoclassical Femme accoudée and Buste de femme au voile bleu; an exceptional group of Edgar Degas bronze dancers; and Jean (Hans) Arp’s enigmatic Déméter.

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, to European immigrants. Mr. Klapper’s plans to study medicine were cut short by the onset of World War II, in which he served as a radioman in the United States Navy. 

After returning from military service, Mr. Klapper went to work at his father’s sewing machine sales company in Manhattan’s Garment District; nearby, Adele was employed at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The two met in a chance encounter at a local luncheonette.

‘When it came to collecting art, the real meat of the matter involved discovering yet another passion that [the Klappers] fully shared’ — Gerard Haggerty

In the increasingly global market of the post-war era, 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. The business only continued to grow in the latter decades of the 20th century.

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 that 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 passionate collecting. For the couple, says 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, fully embracing their newfound pursuit.

‘Collecting was a team sport for the Klappers,’ Haggerty explains. They often took turns acquiring works for their collection: Adele might make a selection one year, while her husband would suggest a purchase the next. 

‘He was a lightning-fast learner,’ art dealer Reese Palley has 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.’ 

For her part, Adele extended her own journey in art to higher education: in 1992 she obtained a degree from Long Island’s Adelphi University, and in 1999 graduated from Adelphi with a Master’s degree in Art History.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Danseuse, 1888. Oil on canvas. 31⅝ x 23½ in (80.5 x 59.5 cm). Estimate: $6,000,000-8,000,000. Offered on 11 November in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale Including Property from the Collection of Herbert and Adele Klapper at Christie’s in New York

Beyond the art-historical importance of the Klappers’ collection was the deeply personal relationship Herbert and Adele held with each piece they acquired. ‘When it came to collecting art, the real meat of the matter involved discovering yet another passion that [Mr. Klapper] and his wife fully shared,’ Haggerty explains. ‘It involved him waking up in the middle of the night, 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.’ 

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 focused on the very best by artists such as Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Arp, Monet, Pieter Brueghel the YoungerPaul CézannePierre-Auguste Renoir, and Degas. 


Pieter Brueghel II (1564-1637), The Flemish Proverbs, 1610. Oil on canvas. 47 x 64½ in. Offered in Old Masters in December at Christie’s in London

‘It was an enormously effective working partnership,’ Palley has said, 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, when we were discussing a possible purchase about which Adele was a bit reluctant, “They’re in trouble if they underestimate Adele”.’

According to Palley, the Klappers’ story was not only one of ‘a great collectors’ partnership, but a lifelong love affair.’

With the passing of Herbert and Adele Klapper in 1999 and 2018, respectively, their exceptional collection is now set to move to a new generation of art lovers. On 11 November, works from The Collection of Herbert and Adele Klapper will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale Including Property from the Collection of Herbert and Adele Klapper  at Christie’s in New York, as part of 20th Century Week.

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