Coming in on a wing and a prayer- part one

In the eighties and nineties, in spite of spending a lot of time on the road going back and forth to Quebec and doing weekend antique shows all the time, I  never had auto club coverage. It’s not that I’m against auto clubs.  I’m sure they give many peace of mind, and before the days of google map they would plan a nice trip for you.  But I inherently have faith, I guess you can call it, that things will generally go well, and should trouble arise I can handle it.  This may stem from being influenced as a young person when I watched a t.v. interview with Orson Bean, who was a political commentator and popular comedian at the time.  He argued that he doesn’t believe in the value of insurance.  He proposed  that if you saved all the money that you spend trying to insure yourself against every eventuality, you would have plenty of money to cover yourself should anything actually occur.  Of course this was before the days of multi-million dollar liability settlements.  But I took his point, and have avoided buying any insurance other than car and house which I consider essential, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

Here’s how I deal with a breakdown.  The first thing is to get the vehicle out of harm’s way.   Then relax, take a deep breath, and realize that the plan has changed.  When I become comfortable with this fact I then go about finding and contacting the nearest garage.  If possible I seek out local input.  Because I am not afraid to make contact with strangers, if someone is around and looks reasonably normal my first move is to explain my situation to that person, and ask if they might direct me.  Gratefully, breakdowns have been rare, and touch wood, my luck has held.  Here’s an example.

It was the mid-nineties and I was heading solo to North Hatley, Quebec to participate in the mid-summer show there.  The truck was tightly packed and I remember there was an almost full size folk art moose tied to the front rack.  At a passing glance, it looked like I was hunting and got lucky.  So, I was bombing along happily, East-bound on the 401 near Gananoque‎, Ontario when the engine started to sputter and choke.  There was an exit right ahead so I took it, hoping I could make it to a garage or at least a parking lot.  I just made it up the ramp and it started to die out, so all I could do was to pull over as far as I could on the shoulder and it shut down. I was distressed in that it was late in the day and although I had planned to stop soon for the night, I was counting on getting up early and driving straight to North Hatley so that I would have time to set up before the seven o’clock opening.  If it took all morning or longer to repair the truck I would not make it in time.

At first I just sat there, and took stock. It was a beautiful late afternoon. That time of day when you get the wonderful clear horizontal light as the sun slowly sets.  Around me were green fields and a couple of small houses nearby. As the motor stopped I could hear the sound of a lawn mower. Excellent, there’s my first move. I hopped out, crossed the road and waited until the man on the riding lawn mower turned the corner and was headed back towards me.  Putting on my best non-threatening smile and waving, he saw me and waved back.  He drove right up to me and killed the engine.  “Beautiful evening.  I don’t mean to trouble you, but that’s my truck over there.  I’ve just broken down and I need to phone a garage. Could you suggest anyone?”.  We exchanged names.  “Well, I work for the Canadian Tire in town so we could fix it tomorrow sometime, but I’ve got a buddie who’s got a country shop just down the road and he may be able to get you going faster. He’s cheaper and better too”  I appreciated his honesty. “Sounds great. Can we give him a call?” “ Sure can.  He’ll probably still be working at the shop” .   A half hour later the truck was hooked up to his tow truck and we were headed the few kilometers to his shop.  He was a great guy.  Right away he offered to stay and work that evening to get me going first thing in the morning.  He figured correctly that it was the fuel pump and he had a rebuilt replacement on hand. When I asked him about a place nearby that I might spend the night, he suggested that his sister had a bed and breakfast, and he could take me there and pick me up in the morning.  How Ideal is that?

His sister and her husband also turned out to be really nice people, and offered me a beer and some sandwiches when they realized I had not had dinner.  After a good night’s sleep, and seven o’clock breakfast I was ready to be picked up at eight.  The truck was repaired, the bill was reasonable, and I was on right on schedule to arrive in North Hatley for set up.  Thank you kind people, and here’s to serendipity.

But as fate would have it, this was not the only “test” I would experience on this particular trip.  I will continue the story in next Friday’s blog.  Stay tuned, as they used to say.

Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.

In Appreciation of French Enamelware

I was enjoying looking over all the fantastic offerings coming up at Colin Latreille’s April 1st auction when I came upon listings for 4 French enamelware coffee pots, and it brought to mind the many pieces of Enamelware we had brought here over the years of importing from France. 

Canadian enamelware was one of the first things Jeanine introduced to me as something she would like to collect, and although at first it I’ll admit it was kind of lost on me, it didn’t take me long to gain an appreciation, and find enjoyment in the hunt.

Enamelware represents a gentler, more Romantic time, when even the most humble item was beautifully made.  Less expensive and more durable than pottery, it served to some degree in the most kitchens and households  from the late 1800’s until the mid-20th century.  Much of it was plain white with a colored boarder,  especially in North America, but for a few cents more you could buy one with an applied décor. 

This was especially the case in Europe were factories in France,  Belgium, Germany, England, Poland and Denmark produced work that came in a wide range of Pastels such as Pink, Aqua, Light Blue, White, but also in vibrant Reds, Blues, Yellows and Oranges. There are many variations of Victorian, Art Nouveau or Art Deco designs.  Many pieces contained a shading of the design which was done by “aerography”, an early form of air brushing technique.  Some top-end pieces are even hand painted.  A few pieces are labelled on the bottom but most are not, so although with a little experience it is easy enough to distinguish between North American and European pieces, it takes a lot longer to learn what factory might have produced an unmarked European piece.  Weight is a clue.  Polish wares tend to be lighter.  Thickness of the enamel layers is another; and you would think when language is involved such as labels on storage canisters ,sucre, being French etc,  it would appear obvious.  However, some factories produced product for foreign markets so that really doesn’t prove anything.   In any case, I think the priority of most collectors is a chosen design, form or color.   Like any collection, at first you buy widely, whenever you see the stuff ignoring flaws, etc, but before long you start to recognize that you do not have an infinite amount of space to put all this stuff, and you begin to discriminate.   When Jeanine started collecting Canadian enamelware it was anything blue on white, with a pleasant form, in good condition. Eventually she narrowed her collecting to one blue and white pattern called “Bonny Blue” made by The McClary manufacturing company of London Ontario.  It looked great spread across a long shelf up near the ceiling running the length of the kitchen.  Then one day she decided that was it, and she sold it all off and started collecting Japanese biscuit barrels, but that’s another story and a woman’s prerogative.

McClary “Bonnie Blue”

So when we started our combination family visit/ buying trips to France, although our priority was pottery, we would also scoop up any fine examples of enamelware we would encounter.  And we would encounter it often, and most times it was dirt cheap.  It’s interesting to note how many great pieces we discovered in the basements of fine antique establishments.  Usually for not much money and thrown in a dark corner, but it illustrates, I think,  that even a top-end dealer cannot resist something so fundamentally beautiful even if it doesn’t represent a big return on investment.  Basically, it turned up everywhere.  At the regular weekly markets, in the “depot/vent” or as we call them consignment shops,  and at the “vide greniers” or “empty the attics” village yard sales.  And even as I mention in the dark corners of some top end shops.  It was fun to buy, and easy to ship,  and we always found it sold fast back in Canada, even though it was sold as European.  Not to collectors of North American enamel wear obviously, but to those who were starting to decorate in a French country style.

French enamel lunch tin

Then, inevitably, over time people’s taste starts to change.  In this case it was not here so much.  More and more people continued to be interested in all things French; but there in France.  After mostly  ignoring it for years the French themselves became interested in the “country look”, and so the enamel wear prices rose quickly and availability became scarce.

I still  love the look of the stuff, and the way it makes me feel.  A comfy feeling.  Grounded. I also noticed last year that availably and prices in the French markets seem more favorable,  but I don’t know about the market here.  I expect it’s a bit of a hard sell, and of course the Euro exchange is a big factor.  Still I’m going to be looking to see the results from Colin’s auction with a mind to future trips. There’s always a little room in the suitcase. 

A Ludwig Black Beauty happens to be a very special snare drum

I guess everybody gets lucky once in a while if they open themselves to the possibility.  I think antique dealers wake up every morning believing that this will be their lucky day.  And most nights they go to sleep thinking “maybe tomorrow’.  But occasionally we do find ourselves in the right place at the right time and we get lucky.  It happened to me one morning in mid-90’s.

When we would go into London  to visit my sister, we liked to stop en route at a little antique mall situated in a strip mall right off the 401 and Wellington St.  Although not large, it had a few good dealers and quickly changing stock so it was worth a look.

One sunny, summer morning we were arriving in good time so decided to pop in and do a quick tour.  Jeanine went one way and I went another.  We tend to spread out and then call the other one over when we see something of interest. We are usually quite casual about it, and relaxed.  And so it was on this morning with lots of things to look at but nothing of interest jumping forward.  I looked in all the booths where I would regularly find something, and it was all “sorry, not this time.”  I wandered around for another ten minutes or so and decided it was time to find Jeanine and barring her having found something of interest suggesting we split.  Then I looked down at the floor in a booth otherwise filled with china figurines and tea cups and there on a little box sat a really interesting old snare drum. I don’t have a lot of knowledge of musical instruments, but I know that a good one can be worth a lot of money, and also that this is particularly the case in some handmade instruments such as violins, and in classic guitars and drums associated with rock and roll.  Also, as you continue in the trade if you are paying attention you continue to develop an instinct for age are rarity.

When I laid eyes on this drum, it immediately hit all my buttons.  Obviously early and in untouched but good condition, it was made of pattern engraved chrome.  There on the side above the air hole was an early Ludwig drum logo.  The heads were ripped and the springs were hanging loose but I could see that everything that mattered was there.  I anxiously turned over the price tag already calculating how many hundreds I would be willing to risk on this venture.  $28.  I  was elated.  And below it written old chrome snare drum, and the venders number, so I knew it was legit.  I clung that thing to me like a beloved baby and scurried over to Jeanine.

“Have you found anything?” I asked.  “Nope. What’s that you’re holding?”  I could barely contain myself. It’s a really cool, old snare drum, and it’s only $28.”  “But is it worth anything?  Look the top is all ripped and torn, and besides are we buying drums now?”  Well there are times when you can be patient and have a meaningful discussion, and then there are times when you just want to buy something and get the hell out of there before someone clues in, so I was a tad abrupt.  “Yes, today we are.  I know what I’m doing and we are buying this drum. Trust me”.   Jeanine could sense my excitement,  and so even though she did not share in it, she tossed me one of her famous Gallic shrugs and said “whatever”.

The guy at the checkout was suspicious.  “Where did you get this?  I didn’t see this come in.”  In that booth over there I gestured, and it is clearly priced at $28 with a description, and booth number, so I would like to buy it now please.”  He rung it up registering his reluctance, and as soon as he handed me the receipt, jeanine and I were out of there as fast as we could go. Reminds me of that great Ikea commercial that comes on around Christmas where the woman shouts “Start the car.”  No ne followed us.  So the drum came home.

Without doing any research I knew that we would at least get a few hundred dollars for the drum based on aesthetic value alone.  Then research revealed that it was a very special drum made  by Ludwig from the 1920’s until the mid-1930’s called the “Black Beauty”. It was made from a single sheet of brass that is machine drawn into a seamless beaded shell, and has a specific and revered tone.  We still didn’t know what this might mean in terms of dollar value,  but we realized that we needed to reach the widest range of  drum aficionados possible so we listed it on E-Bay.  Jeanine was listing a lot of French pottery at the time so this was not for her typical buyers, but by putting Ludwig Black Beauty in the listing we were sure to catch anyone doing a search.

I think we started it at $100 thinking that if the worst came to worst we’d be fine with that, and then we went about our business and didn’t check until the next morning.  Holy moly, it’s up to $600 already!  We were pretty happy right there.  Then over the next four days we had the great fun of checking in on advancements.  Watching it creep up and up until the hammer finally came down at $2,800 U.S.  Not enough to retire on, but enough for us to go to France for a family visit and picking trip. What we felt can only be described as ecstatic, tainted only slightly with a nagging suspicion that it was not at all likely to happen again.  At least not soon.  Lightening striking twice, and all that.  Still, I’m a big believer in counting my blessings, and celebrating the little victories.

Bob MacDonald and the fantasy cities

I can’t remember how we met Bob MacDonald.  It’s most likely that he found us.  Bob was a full time antique picker who would pull in unexpectedly from time to time in whatever old wreck of a car he happened to be driving.  I don’t think he ever paid over $100 for a car, and he spent all his time in them, so they didn’t last long.  Bob was the type of character that kept me interested in this antique business, come lifestyle.

Bob was charming, intelligent, well read, and knowledgeable in the arts, and literature; but he also liked the bottle, and survived on almost nothing, occasionally being reduced to living in his car.  When he came by, we would make sure he got some food in him, along with his beloved black coffee.

Bob spent all of his time following up leads, and beating the bushes for valuable artwork and rare books.  He was good at it and would occasionally score big time. Then eventually the money would be gone and he may have to suffer through a fallow period.  Those where the ropes. When he found something in folk art, like a Maud Lewis painting or the like he would come to see us.  Sometimes to convince us to put some money up front, so he could actually purchase the object he had found.  We trusted Bob, and he always delivered. 

I was working in the garden on a fine summer day in the late eighties when Bob came roaring up the driveway, a big smile on his face, and a car full of what appeared to be aquariums. On closer inspection I could see that they were hand-made display boxes with plexiglass on the top and front.   There was a half dozen on the back seat and two beside him on the passenger seat. He popped the trunk and there were another four large ones in there.  “You’ll never guess what I’m bring you today”.  He could hardly contain himself.  “ I was up in Goderich and stopped in to the Chinese restaurant there for some lunch.  I got talking to the owners and came around to telling them I was looking for art and books, and the young woman there said “Well, I don’t know if you will consider them art, but my father when he wasn’t busy cooking would get out a key-hole saw, and spend hours making these fantasy city landscapes.  Would you like to see them?”  Of course he was delighted to look.  There in the back storage room were dozens of these boxes of various size and configuration. Every one similar with many layers of carefully cut out and painted balsa wood walls, towers, balconies; and courtyards adorned with little plastic trees and flowers. Most of them had a boarder of mini Christmas lights around the front, and occasionally there would be a plastic figure of a ballerina, or chicken, or duck perched atop a column making it appear to be  a giant statue in the courtyard.  The overall effect was mesmerizing.  I know Bob would play it cool, but I bet his eyes were popping out.  She explained that for a time her father would display them in the front window and occasionally someone would buy one, but eventually he became discouraged.  The family had all kept their favorites, and so when Bob expressed interest, they sold the rest of them to him for a song.  Really just wanting to find them a good home and free up the storage space I suppose.  Bob drove directly to us.

What can I tell you.  Jeanine and I both really liked them and felt they were strong examples of original folk art from a vivid imagination. Perhaps one looking nostalgically back on a childhood spent in China, although a China of the “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” variety.  We felt and would continue to argue that they contained magic .   We weren’t sure if anyone would feel the same and we now had a dozen of them.  It’s the question you ask yourself when you invest your hard earned money in something that most people would find clearly crazy.  If you see it, and can recognize it, I think you are under some obligation to act.  Otherwise, why are you a folk art dealer, and not working at the bank. Or something else that rewards you with a pension, benefits and a regular “Johnny Paycheck”. 

We took them to a few Ontario shows where they were pretty much ignored, or met with a polite curiosity, or in some cases they produced downright hostility.   What is it about some folk art which actually makes people angry? I think it’s a combination of seeing something you revile with a big price tag.  It makes one question the value of money, which can lead to questioning one’s values in general, which can lead to all sorts of problems.  In any case, it soon looked like we would be owning them for a long while to come.  We didn’t have a lot of money wrapped up in them as Bob had passed them on to us very reasonably so we were happy enough to set them all up in  the showroom and plug them all in.  Then turn out the lights and enjoy  the feeling of being transported.  An exciting Friday evening out on the ranch.

Fortunately, the next January we found ourselves doing a show in New York city, and within ten moments of opening a man came rushing up to us needing to know everything about them.  He listened to the story and we soon settled on a price for all of them with the understanding that if any more were to become available he had first dibs.  Also, we were to find out anything more that we could about the artist.  Bob died not too long after, and we didn’t get a chance to ask him to go back.  Our lifestyle was such that I couldn’t take the time to drive to Goderich to see what I could find out, but it’s something I still think about from time to time. The trails pretty cold at this point.

“That’s funny. Someone’s burning wood on this hot summer day.”

In the late eighties Bill Dobson decided to hold a one day antique show in a small town just south of Montreal.  I’ve been on Google map, and for the life of me can’t figure out what town it was.  It may have been Napierville but I wouldn’t lay money on it.  In any case, it struck us as a good prospect and fit our agenda so we signed up.  First time shows are a toss of the dice, but Bill kept the rent reasonable so even if it was a wash you were not out much.  We also liked the fact that after the show we could make the two hour drive to Victoriaville to check out if anything great had arrived recently at the picker’s barns there.  Cassandra was out of school so she came along and so we also made it a bit of a working vacation. Which is about the only kind of vacation we were taking in those days.

It was already a glorious day when we pulled in to the quaint small town fair grounds at 7 a.m. on that Saturday morning.  There was about forty dealers arranged in two back to back aisles along the race track between the community hall and the bandstand.  We spotted many of the usual suspects, especially among the Eastern Ontario and Quebec dealers who did Bill’s other shows, but there were also a lot of dealers we had never seen before.  We did some good picking after setting up in those first couple of hours before the show opened.

When we pulled into our spot I noticed that a Quebec dealer I had never met was set up behind us and he had some wonderful things.  We made our acquaintance and did a little business.  Ah, that wonderful feeling of optimism that sets in just before starting an outdoor show on a beautiful day when bad weather is not a worry. I noticed that there was a very old lady sitting in the shade behind his truck already starting to cane chairs, while chain smoking.  She was the dealer’s mother and was well into her eighties.  He said she loved caning chairs and it was a good part of his business.  I enjoyed meeting her in spite of the fact that she barely spoke and continued to smoke one hand-rolled cigarette after another. I noticed she threw her butts on the ground and there was already a little circle of them around her, but didn’t think much of it.

The day preceded to be fun and profitable.  Many Montrealer’s made the drive and we also recognized lots of eastern Ontario collectors.  At  5 o’clock shows end we were happy with our day both from a buying and selling perspective.   It didn’t take long for us to pack up, and the last thing I loaded was a stack of packing blankets that had been sitting by the back door of the truck, and were no longer needed as the pieces they were protecting had been sold and were gone. I picked up the whole bunch and stuffed them in a space in the left, back corner just at the base of a wonderful old one piece cupboard in original red paint that in spite of it’s attributes had failed to attract a buyer.  We hopped in, turned east and started the two hour drive to the Motel Marie-Dan in St. Eulalie where we had a reservation.  This motel was clean and friendly and inexpensive and situated near the pickers barns so it was were many dealers stayed.  It has a nice little pool too which  Cassandra liked.  We arrived without incident, got our key which was to an upstairs room, and unloaded our luggage.  We switched on the air conditioning because it was and continued to be a stifling hot day; had ourselves a cool beverage, and proceeded to relax and count the loot we had taken in.  At the end of a good day of selling this is the best part.  Cassandra who was about 8 at the time watched a few  late afternoon cartoons and just as I was starting to nod off in my chair, looked over and said “ how about a swim ,Dad?” To be honest a quick nap in a cool room after such a long day of unloading, selling, and loading again was more appealing, but Cassandra had been such a trouper, helping out with packing and keeping herself occupied over the long hours in the hot sun, that I was not about to deny her this simple pleasure.  Plus, I knew that a little dip would do wonders to restore my energy.  So I put on my bathing suit and ten minutes later we were happily floating, and jumping and otherwise enjoying the little pool which had grown almost warm in the summer sun.  It was quite idyllic.  The sun starting to lower behind the forest which ran behind the motel bringing that beautiful evening light  which softens the contrast and pushes the red end of the colour spectrum that film makers call the “golden hour”.  I remember floating peacefully while hanging off the edge of the pool by my ankles, which is a favourite trick of mine. I loved watching Cassandra jump in over and over and otherwise enjoying herself.  We were the only ones there. As I lay there thinking how fortunate, content and grateful I felt, I was at one with the world.  And it was about then that I faintly detected the beautiful smell of burning wood.  I remember thinking, “That’s funny. Someone is burning wood on this hot summer day.” Almost as quickly I thought “ well it must be someone burning up old surplus wood to get rid of it.” And that’s when I looked over towards the parking lot and noticed smoke billowing from the back door of my truck.

You’ve never seen someone exit a pool, and cross a parking lot as fast as I did that day.  I ran to the back door of the truck which was hot, but of course it was locked and I quickly realized the keys were upstairs.  I raced upstairs, pounded frantically on the door until Jeanine who was coming out of the shower answered with a ‘hold your horses,  I’m coming, where’s the fire.”  “In the truck” I fairly shouted, “the truck’s on fire.  Quick get me the keys.” It seemed like an hour but it was probably just a few minutes before I was again at the back door of the truck. As soon as I unlocked and opened it, of course the rush of air hit the flames and the blankets were truly ablaze.  I grabbed them out and dumped them on the parking lot, and could see that the fire had also connected to the bottom of that big red cupboard which was laying on it’s side in front of the blankets.  I looked around wildly assessing my next move.  My first instinct at seeing open flame was to run, but I recovered my senses and noticed a long hose hooked up to a faucet by the garden so I raced over and was relieved to find that water came out when I cranked it and also that the hose was long enough to reach my truck.  It only took a couple of minutes to put the small fire out on the bottom of the cupboard,  and extinguish the large pile of burning blankets by now safely away from the other vehicles parked in the lot.  Cassandra was there beside me all along but there was little for her to do but watch and shout encouragement.  When it had cooled, we dug through the blankets and sure enough there was the smoldering butt of a hand rolled cigarette.

Thanks to Cassandra’s insistence on a swim, I had discovered the fire in time,  that surely would have otherwise escalated within that truck filed with 100 year old pine to the point  where I imagined the headline would read “Truck explodes on motel parking lot causing massive damage”.  The bottom board of the cupboard had to be replaced due to the smoky smell that would always inhabit it, but otherwise we just lost a pile of old blankets.  A close call.