By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
So he did.
And the quest began.
Kline was born in Maryland and raised in San Antonio, where his father had a real estate company and his mother was a homemaker. If he inherited his artistic eye from anyone, it was probably from his grandfather, who collected such things as a medieval suit of armor and a Rubens painting. Kline remembers the old gentleman guiding him through the collection, telling stories and firing his imagination.
By the time Kline hit the fifth grade, he had assembled his own collection of strange and beautiful objects--butterflies and autographs of baseball players prominent among them. In high school he moved on to poetry, and in college he pursued creative writing. After attending universities in Texas and Mexico City, Kline wound up in San Francisco, where he fell headlong into the Haight-Ashbury scene and attended peace marches, poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, and concerts by Janis Joplin. He also scoured the secondhand boutique at the Spreckels Mansion and collected fine used furniture, first-edition books, and rare prints.
After teaching English and creative writing, publishing several books of poetry, and getting married and having kids, Kline was hired by National Geographic and dispatched to the arctic, where he met the "Michelangelo of Eskimos." From there he did a stint as a speechwriter at Cornell University, then finally moved to Santa Fe and settled down as an art dealer.
From the beginning of this career, Kline has been lucky. One of his first discoveries was in an interior designer's shop: a sunset landscape featuring a barge chugging down a canal and the signature "G. Inness, 1869." The painting was torn, dirty, and worth $1,000, the decorator said. Kline had a feeling. He bought the painting.
Kline then dived into his personal library, which would eventually grow to include 2,000 books. He had the painting restored to museum condition and tracked down an art expert who took 10 seconds to authenticate it. "Sunset, Canal Scene" sold for $35,000 and now hangs in a private collection in the Midwest.
"First you see quality," Kline says. "That is something you train for. And I study a lot. All kinds of art. I'm a generalist. Experts tend to know too much about one thing, and if it's out of their specialty, they tend to draw back. You have to be open. Anything can be anywhere. If I've proved anything, it's the truth of that."
Another time, Kline walked into a San Antonio antique store and asked the proprietor to bring him the shop's most valuable object. He produced a tintype photograph of a man with long hair and a handlebar mustache dressed in a checkered suit. Inside the photo's case was a poem written in pencil: "Do I love thee/go ask the flowers/if they love/sweet refreshing showers" and the signature, "James B. Hickok, Springfield, Mo."
Kline asked the proprietor whether he could verify that the tintype was indeed Wild Bill Hickok. The man said no and explained that that was why he had not been able to sell it for 20 years. But Kline had a feeling. He bought the photo for $1,200.
Once again, he returned to his office, read everything he could, and found the expert on Hickok, who said that not only were the photo and poem authentic, but they were the only items of their kind. Kline sold them for $18,700.
"It's an instinct," he says. "A knack. A gift. Call it fate, chance, intuition. I find it mystical. I like the idea that there's magic involved and that I'm a part of it."
Whatever it is, Kline's wife and partner, Jann, seems to have it too. About 14 years ago, Jann attended an estate sale offering up furniture, antiques, and some "old pictures." She returned home with a sepia-ink drawing of the Holy Family on old handmade paper, which she had bought for $100. Kline looked it over and said, "This is Raphael."
They spent the next month with their noses in art history books, examining thousands of drawings. Raphael was close, but not quite right. Then Jann found an inscription on the bottom of the drawing that said, "Baldassare da Siena." After more research, they discovered that Baldassare da Siena was Baldassare Peruzzi.
In his 20 years as an art dealer, Kline, who today runs the Fred R. Kline Gallery in Santa Fe, has discovered long-lost works by Jan Brueghel, Pier Francesco Mola, William Coulter, and Joseph Anton Koch, to name a few.
"I'm an art explorer," Kline says. "This is what I do. So many people are ready to say no. But finally, you can only trust your own eye. We have been fortunate enough to make money, but I really do it for the love of art. It really is a quest. The metaphor I like to use is the Holy Grail. That's how I feel. Every time I go out, I feel I'm looking for the Holy Grail, that hidden object of art. I love the mystery of it."