Like many modern love affairs, Dave Knoke’s 50-year relationship with art started as a casual thing.
Way back in the 1960s, the young bank executive had a penchant for collecting. It was a tic he’d picked up from his father, who amassed coins, stamps, and Civil War weapons. Knoke himself first got the bug over Tiffany lamps. Then he found paintings.
“It’s a hobby that turned into a business,” as Knoke puts it, hunched over his desk at Knoke Fine Arts in Marietta. “It's not like selling shoes at Sears. I mean, it's in your blood.”
Beside him, among stacks of papers, glows one of his lamps; the walls are heavy with rifles, paintings, and sculptures, and the oriental rugs criss-crossing the floors dazzle the eye.
Such is the sum of Knoke’s half-century as one of Georgia’s premier art dealers. For 30 of those years, his right hand has been Debbie Charter, the gallery’s director. Knoke says she runs the place; Charter admits only to handling the “computer work.”
But to ask either of them what they cherish most as they prepare to shut down the gallery over the next year, they won’t point to anything on the walls.
“It’s the relationships,” Knoke says, Charter nodding her agreement. “The friends we have made, not only collectors, but museum directors and people. That's been the most fun in this business.”
Knoke won’t hesitate to admit his life — spent in the buying and selling beautiful objects — has been a charmed one. It’s not, however, all chin-stroking from the comfort of an armchair.
"Of course all our friends and customers think we play all day long,” he told Cobb Life, “but we really work.”
That comes with the territory of how the pair have built their gallery. Knoke Fine Arts isn’t some knick-knack shop hawking cheap landscapes to tourists, nor is it a whitewashed and bare room where a single, inscrutable canvas sells for a small fortune.
“What we sell primarily is ‘investment art,’ that hopefully grows in value, normally, and has a track record already of what it sells for,” he says.
In other words, the transactions are only the beginning or end of a whole process for each painting or sculpture. There’s restoration, framing, photography of the piece, research into the artist and their work, and consultation with museums and other collectors — “putting a tuxedo on it,” Knoke calls it.
That’s where much of Charter’s specialty lies. For every piece that leaves the doors of Knoke Fine Arts, she hands the customer a dossier on the work and the artist, and where they’ve exhibited if the customer wants to see more.
“When we sell a painting, that has a market value — not just some price we want to put on it because we think it's worth that, and we just pull it out of the air,” Charter said. “We learn about the artists. That’s part of what they’re collecting.”
Shifting cultural tides have also opened up new niches in the market, which the duo has comfortably filled.
“In the last 10 or 15 years we have specialized in art of the South — 19th and early 20th century art of the South, because it has become very collectible,” Knoke said.
That hasn’t always been the case. Charter recalls an old Marietta friend of Knoke’s, Dr. Robert Coggins, who learned that the hard way in New York City some decades ago.
“He went into a gallery and he said, 'I want to see your Southern artwork.’ And they looked at him and said, ‘There's no such thing,’” Charter said.
These, of course, are different times. Two of Knoke’s specialties are the eminent artists Lamar Dodd, namesake of the UGA art school, and Athos Menaboni the Italian immigrant-turned-Georgian whose bird paintings rival those of Audubon.
“Dave has probably handled more paintings by Athos Menaboni than any other dealer,” Charter said.
Most come from other dealers and collectors — Knoke will frequently get calls from folks on the other side of the country, asking if he’s interested in a given piece — but he once found a stunning Menaboni by way of every dealer’s dream: at an unassuming estate sale.
“About 10 or 15 years ago … I was going into Buckhead, and I saw a sign that said yard sale, or house sale,” he recalled. “And I thought, I’m in a really good neighborhood. I’ll just pull in here and take a look.”
“It was a gorgeous, big, fabulous home. I went in there and I looked around, and there’s some beautiful furniture. All of a sudden, on a wall in one room, I saw this Menaboni cardinal … The lady who was handling the sale said, ‘But it’s a print.’”
Knoke took it down off the wall, and he recalled, “I looked at it and — it was not a print. It was an original oil painting.” He walked away with it for $150, with the woman seeming to be glad to have gotten even that much.
As he alludes to, Knoke’s also worked closely with a number of museums around the South, in recent decades trading and lending the work of folk artists like Howard Finster and Ulysses Davis. He’s dealt with the High in Atlanta, the Morris Museum in Augusta, the Booth Museum in Cartersville, and naturally, the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art.
From all those contacts has come an outpouring of support as Knoke announced his retirement last month.
“That’s the most encouraging — that’s the greatest part of our business,” he said, perusing the notes of thanks and condolences.
“I’ve been here so long, It’s like having two homes. I feel like I’m walking into my home,” Charter said.
In the next year, Knoke and Charter will spend most of their time selling off the remaining collection. Even then, they say it’s doubtful Knoke will walk away entirely.
“People say, ‘Dave you can't stop buying!’ Well, selling is anti-climatic,” he laughed. “Selling is one thing, and that's how you can buy. But we just can't wait for something to come in that door.”
“There is no way I can stop being in the business, because I'm going to get calls at my home … If somebody calls me and they've got a Lamar Dodd that they want to sell for $2,500, and we know we can get $10,000 for it — you think I'm not gonna buy the damn thing? No!” Knoke said with a coy smile.
“I’ll never get out of this business, you know that.”