Saskatchewan boy, philanthropist, international art dealer: Meet Frederick Mulder

As a boy in tiny Eston, Sask., Frederick Mulder played hockey and curled. Today he is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of 19th- and 20th-century European prints.

One of the world's pre-eminent experts on Picasso hails from tiny Prairie town

Frederick Mulder stands beside Picasso’s Jacqueline Reading in the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Feb. 10. (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC News)

Like many who grew up in rural Saskatchewan during the 1950s, Frederick Mulder curled, played hockey and golfed in people's backyards. Looking back now on his childhood in the tiny town of Eston, there was just one indication of the unconventional career he had waiting. 

"My ex-wife used to say, 'You used to go door to door selling Christmas cards, now you just go city to city selling prints.'" 

Not just any prints but Picassos, Munches and Matisses.

Mulder, 76, is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of 19th- and 20th-century European prints. He has sold art to private dealers and museums around the world. 

As he walks around the Picasso and Paper exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, his faint British accent is a reminder that the man has been in England now for over 50 years. 

"This is it. This is the one we sold," said Mulder. "This is a linocut from 1962 of Jacqueline, his wife."

Mulder graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a BA in English then attended Brown University in Rhode Island on a scholarship but made a last-minute switch to philosophy. His thesis adviser suggested he write his dissertation at Oxford or Cambridge. 

"I thought that was a lovely idea," Mulder says with a smile.

Borrowing to buy Picassos

With the help of a generous Canada Council fellowship, Mulder hopped on a plane bound for England with a book about investments. The last chapter focused on a man who collected the etchings of 17th-century master Rembrandt van Rijn.

Upon arriving, Mulder attended an auction containing one of the artist's prints. With little experience in purchasing art, he picked up the phone to seek advice — and ended up dialling the famous Sotheby's auction house.

"I treated London just like it was, as if it was this small town, really. I thought I could call anybody up or go and see anyone."

Mulder bought his first Rembrandt print in 1966 and was instantly hooked.

Mulder, around four years of age, sits petting two kittens in his hometown of Eston, Saskatchewan. (Submitted by Frederick Mulder)

He later sold it and used some of the money to go to Paris. It was there he met up with a man named Paul Proute whose stock included Picassos, including an impression of The Circus — the only Picasso Mulder owned.

"I said to him, well, I'd like to buy yours. And he said, 'I have a whole bunch of them if, you know, if you want more than one.'"

Mulder bought eight. But had to borrow the money to do it. 

"I came back, told my bank that I had done this and said, 'I hear you have these things called overdrafts,'" he says with a laugh. "The bank manager was amused. I don't think he'd ever had a graduate student asking if he could, you know, borrow money to buy some Picassos." 

Within two weeks, he says, he'd sold every Picasso for double what he'd paid. 

It was the start of a formula that propelled Mulder's career forward: buy strategically, sell honestly, profit slowly. Eventually, the art would go for as much as $3 million. 

Despite his success, Mulder never aspired to own a yacht or go on expensive vacations. In fact, his 20-year-old Volkswagen was stolen a few years ago so now he rides a bicycle or uses Uber to get around.

Instead, Mulder uses that money to give back. 

Passionate philanthropist

"Fred's passions go far beyond the art world, and I would divide them into two that are connected at the hip," said University of Saskatchewan president Peter Stoicheff, who has known Mulder for eight years. "One is philanthropy ... and the other is ...  in environmental causes."

Mulder estimates, and media reports confirm, he has so far donated around 10 million pounds (more than $17 million Cdn) to various causes. He says the environment is definitely a focus.

"I think that what we're doing now is we're stealing the future from our children. We don't have the right to use resources that we should be leaving for you to use," said Mulder. 

Mulder’s childhood hockey team in Eston. Mulder, age 10, is third from left in the top row. (Submitted by Frederick Mulder)

"He's very humble," said Stoicheff. "It's difficult to say exactly where that comes from, but part of it is that he grew up in small-town Saskatchewan."

There are now Picasso works splashed across the Prairies — nearly all with ties to Mulder, and at least six of which he donated to the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). 

In 2012, Mulder sold what he calls "the most extensive collection of Picasso linocuts in the world" to Ellen Remai. She subsequently donated it to the Remai Modern, a Saskatoon art museum named after her, and that sparked a partnership between the museum and the U of S.

The collection is valued at some $20 million.

Back to his roots 

In May, Mulder will return to his home province for a Picasso symposium put on by the museum and the U of S, which in 2017 honoured Mulder for his "lifelong contributions in the art world and his passion for philanthropy."

"It'll be nice to go back," said Mulder. "I've often thought if I had come from the same background in the U.K. that I came from in Saskatchewan, which is a very remote farming town, I probably would have had the wrong accent, the wrong set of ideas." 

This Picasso linocut, donated by Mulder, hangs in the museum in Eston, pictured in this 2016 photo during a visit by then-lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan, Vaughn Solomon Schofield. (Submitted by Verna Thompson)

Asked what his younger self would think upon hearing about the life he has lived, Mulder says with a laugh, "I would have thought that they must be talking about somebody else." 

There was no art in Eston, Sask., when Mulder grew up. There is now, however, one Picasso linocut, donated by Mulder,  that hangs in the local museum, a testament to where the great art dealer is from, where he went and the endless possibilities of where anyone can go. 

"These things happen. They could so easily not have happened," said Mulder, "and if you take the opportunity that they provide, you know, they kind of transform your life."