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Walter Moos opened his first art gallery in Yorkville in May, 1959.

When Walter Anton Moos opened his first art gallery on the first Saturday of May, 1959 – this was at the southeast corner of Avenue and Davenport roads in midtown Toronto – he didn't call it the Moos Gallery or the Walter Moos Gallery. It was Gallery Moos – a deliberate echo or palimpsest of Galerie Moos, the name his father, Friedrich, had affixed to the art showcase he had opened 60 years earlier in Karlsruhe, a medium-sized German city barely 15 kilometres to the northeast of the French-German border. Later, other family members would own and operate important galleries in Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland.

Toronto had never seen a commercial gallery quite like the "crisp white rectangle" that was Gallery Moos. Of course, the city had galleries. Not many, mind you, but none that so fervently embraced the modern, especially its European iteration, or was so determined to raise the city's visual literacy. In that first show alone, the 32-year-old Mr. Moos, who hadn't even been in the city a year, presented works by Picasso and Braque, Chagall and Derain as well as (in an intimation of things to come) paintings by the Paris-based but Quebec-born abstractionist Paul-Émile Borduas.

Amazingly, he kept the art – great, good, fair and dubious – coming for the next 54 years. When he died last month at 86 of causes related to melanoma, leaving behind his wife Martha, two children and two grandchildren, he could claim to have exhibited an estimated 600 artists at the four locations he occupied successively in Toronto, as well as the outposts he established, temporarily, in Calgary and New York in 1979 and 1986. No mere picture seller, Mr. Moos was a galvanizing figure – "loyal," "passionate," "generous" – in the careers of such significant Canadian artists as Ken Danby, Gershon Iskowitz, Sorel Etrog, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alex Janvier and Ron Moppett, as well as a welcoming host to European masters like the Netherlands' Karel Appel and Antoni Tapies of Spain.

His life was a sort of miracle, although being a gentlemanly, quiet-spoken, understated sort who, in the words of a friend, "knew when to step aside and let things unfold," he likely wouldn't have put it that way. But being born a Jew in Germany in the fall of 1926, as he was, meant that he could not avoid being witness, victim and, luckily, survivor of the Nazi scourge. Mr. Moos was never voluble about this yet neither did he try to dodge the discussion. "It wasn't that it wasn't unimportant … but it wasn't a wound that always had to be picked at," said friend and colleague Ihor Holubizky, currently senior curator at McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton. "For him, it seemed to be: You take what happened. You don't erase memory. Then you move forward."

It's known that Galerie Moos in Karlsruhe was shuttered by the Nazis, its assets confiscated, and that Mr. Moos's father and mother, Klara, fled to France only to be rounded up after its defeat in 1940 and sent to their doom at Auschwitz. It's known, too, that Mr. Moos, around his 16th birthday, facing surefire deportation (and eventual death), fled the Jewish orphanage/school in which he'd been placed in southern France to make his way to neutral Switzerland, where his uncle, Max Moos, and cousin Georges lived.

This is to understate the drama. As Mr. Moos's youngest, Toronto-based son, David, puts it: "The terms of Walter's escape to Switzerland from France are epic, existential and destiny defining." Not only was cousin Georges a gallerist in Geneva but a high-ranking member of the French resistance, and as such "was able to sort of reach into France" and shepherd Walter to safety.

"It was a little like a movie," David Moos's older brother, Michel, said recently by phone from Atlanta, where he heads a communications company. "There's the scene on the train when the Gestapo is checking papers and Walter has to evade that, the scene with the guy on a bicycle and hiding in this barn. So there is a little bit of The Great Escape in Walter's story."

Mr. Moos spent the next five or six years in Switzerland under the care of his prosperous relatives, tutored, he liked to tell his sons, by "the same tutor to the King of Siam and the Rothschilds." At war's end, he attended the École Supérieure de Commerce in Geneva (where, Michel Moos believes, he picked up the English he would later use with such fluency).

At 22, he immigrated to the United States, only to end up being drafted into the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division upon his arrival. After two years of service, during which he attained the rank of sergeant major, Mr. Moos received an honourable discharge. He then made his way to New York to spend the next 12 years working at the New American Library, the U.S. publisher of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels.

When he wasn't working, Mr. Moos was immersing himself in the vibrant New York art scene. By the mid-fifties, he was especially close to Martha Jackson, whose gallery was one of the city's most sophisticated, with a diverse roster of artists that included, at one time or another, Karel Appel, Antoni Tapies, Francis Bacon, Lee Krasner, John Chamberlain, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, Marisol, Lester Johnson and Morris Louis.

Eventually, Mr. Moos hit upon the idea of starting his own modern-art space in Manhattan. But then, during a holiday visit to his older brother, Henry, a Toronto travel agent, someone challenged him to open a showcase in the Ontario capital. "New York already has a lot of galleries," he was told. "We need more art galleries here."

Intrigued, Mr. Moos scouted what he would later call "this visually challenged city" to see if this was true and discovered it was – more or less. (The Carmen Lamanna Gallery, for instance, was still seven years from opening. Avrom Isaacs had opened the Greenwich, later Isaacs Gallery, in 1955 and by the early sixties it was the premier venue for cutting-edge Canadian creators Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Graham Coughtry, Dennis Burton and Mark Prent, among others.)

Drawing on his family connections with the European art world – Uncle Max had been Picasso's primary dealer in Switzerland – and his friendship with Martha Jackson, Mr. Moos was able to make an impressive bow at his Avenue Road and Davenport locale. But it wasn't just the art that was the draw – it was Mr. Moos's attentiveness, his enthusiasm and politesse, including his penchant for lightly kissing the proffered hands of his female patrons upon introduction. Another gesture that became a signature of sorts was a loose military salute, done with his left hand positioned at eye level, the baby finger raised as one does when sipping a cup of tea in proper company.

One week after the opening, the prominent financier and arts patron Samuel Zacks came into the shop accompanied by a 25-year-old Romanian-born sculptor named Sorel Etrog, whose work Mr. Zacks liked. Mr. Moos and Mr. Etrog made an instant connection. "He was very European like me, yes?" Mr. Etrog, 79, recalled recently. "He was courtly, easily involved in the dialogue." He was also "a great joke teller; he would change his entire physiognomy as he did so, like an actor putting on a show."

In short order, Mr. Moos was hosting an exhibition of Mr. Etrog's wood constructions, thereby initiating a partnership that would endure into the spring of 2013, when the now-famous abstracted figurative sculptor and his dealer met at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the opening of a five-month Etrog retrospective.

Mr. Moos stayed in his debut location for almost two-and-a-half years before seeking larger quarters a few blocks to the south. Newly married to the former Martha Wegmuller, he settled on buying the two halves of a semi-detached house on the north side of Yorkville Avenue. In doing so, he inadvertently became "the father of Yorkville" – or at least the Yorkville that, by the late 1960s, was Canada's Haight-Ashbury, and then, as Michel Moos puts it, "the equivalent of Rodeo Drive for Toronto."

In 1962, though, Yorkville Avenue was pretty much a quiet residential east-west thoroughfare near the venerable Royal Ontario Museum and the Park Plaza Hotel. All that changed when Mr. Moos applied, successfully, to the municipal board to have his house at 136-138 Yorkville rezoned for commercial use as a gallery. Two years later the basement of the house next door opened as the Riverboat, Canada's most famous coffeehouse and the musical home-away-from-home for the likes of Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell and many others.

Mr. Moos stayed put there for the next 30 years and had his greatest successes in that "hospitable and pleasant precinct," David Moos says, as his perch became a key part of "a critical mass of important galleries" that included the Mira Godard, Gallery One, Miriam Shiell Fine Art and Sable-Castelli.

Of all his successes there, perhaps none was greater, at least in the popular imagination, than Ken Danby. Today we forget that, in his earliest days, Mr. Danby was an abstract painter, and it was only under Mr. Moos's auspices that he turned to the realistic representations, most notably 1972's iconic At the Crease, that made his fame and fortune. Lineups were not uncommon outside Gallery Moos when a Danby show opened, and the artist/dealer bond held fast into the late eighties when Mr. Moos mounted a show of new Danbys at his SoHo outpost. The relationship seemed to break around 1990 when Mr. Danby slipped from public view for almost 10 years, only to be restored around 2001.

Such ruptures and rapprochements seem to have been a motif in Mr. Moos's career. Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO, recalled that his father, Mashel, had at least three such episodes in his career as a painter, the last reunion occurring just before his death at 64 in 1985. Observed Mr. Teitelbaum: "One thing I always noted about Walter is that he was someone who looked carefully. For him, the experience of art began not with what you heard but with what you saw. He was very much about aesthetics, style, taste, judgment – things that by the 1970s had been brought into question by pop art, conceptual art and the like. Yet he held true to those values, and his death, I think, marks the end of an era.

"He was the last of a generation of art dealers who came here from Europe and brought what you could call Old World experience and judgment into a young Canadian art scene."

Mr. Moos started to slow down in the early 1990s, feeling both his age and the effects of the economic downturn. He moved west, to a ground-floor space on Richmond Street West near Bathurst Street. "Yorkville had been an intense operation, and I think he just wanted to have a lower centre of gravity," says David Moos, a private art consultant who spent seven years as curator of modern and contemporary art at the AGO. Yet another move, to a third-floor office above College Street, occurred in 2012.

Still, "for all that he changed the scope of his operations, he never retired," Mr. Teitelbaum said. "In fact, the last time I saw Walter," he said with a laugh, "he wanted to sell me an $18-million Francis Bacon painting. I looked at him and said, 'I'll certainly think about it,' and then he sent me the details! We never closed on it, but, you know, there he was: Making the deal, reaching out, trying to place great art in Toronto."

Editor's note: When the art dealer Walter Moos opened his gallery in Toronto in 1959, Montreal was the largest Canadian city. The obituary of Mr. Moos on Saturday incorrectly described Toronto as Canada's largest city at that time.

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