When it comes to selling folk art, something you learn pretty quickly is that size matters. In this case, small being better than large, because not many collectors have a large amount of space to dedicate to their interest, and so although they may be delighted to see a large piece, not many of them are going to take it home. The exception being things like totem poles or other vertical forms that don’t take up too much floor space., or can go outdoors. Even then it has to have a lot going for it, or you risk hauling the thing around from show to show like a giant albatross around your neck. That being said, it’s good to have something spectacular for a show like Bowmanville, where you focus on building a reputation as well as sales, and big and flashy gets them into your booth. This is why on the rare occasion when I did find something large that made my heart skip, I found myself drifting from ”isn’t this an interesting thing. I’m so happy to have experienced it and now I have it to remember”, to “I wonder if I can Squeeze this thing into the truck and when I get home convince Jeanine it is a good idea.” It’s a feeling recognized by elements of excitement and danger coming rapidly in equal amounts.
It was early spring and the hope brought on by new life and growth was thick in the air as I pulled in to Jean Deshaies or as he is known “Kojak’s”. I was flying solo and with a full truck, so it was a last look in case of an interesting small or something worth putting aside for next time. I could see that Kojak was excited when I walked in, and he jumped right up and hurried towards me, “ Phil, you’ve got to see what just came in. It’ll blow your mind”. He brought me into his small front room where he kept his special things and there perched on a table in front of the window was a spectacular 7 foot long, 4’ tall, red and white, three tiered birdhouse in the form of a ship. The name “Vatican” painted prominently on the bow. Wow. What a thing. Double masted, with twin funnels spewing black smoke asthe French flag overlooked all from high above. You could see that great care had gone into the creation. Every piece was carved lovingly from wood or shaped from metal, and it was built to last.
It was made in the late 1940’s by two priests who taught and lived at the seminary near the town of Lobiniere, situated on the south shore of the St Lawrence river. It took them over two years to make it, and then they mounted it outdoors under a sheltering roof where it served as the home for many birds over the next thirty years or so until the seminary closed. By then the brothers had died, and it was bought by a local. Fortunately, he looked after it well, keeping it painted and maintained and under a roof as the brothers had, so when Kojak bought it, it was just a question of giving it a really good cleaning. This was the state it arrived in hours before I pulled in.
It hit all my buttons, had great provenance, and was definitely top drawer folk art, but it was also a lot of money, and huge, not to mention massively heavy. My mind kept telling me to “avoid” “just move away and nobody gets hurt” but when Jean told me he had already called a couple of Quebec city dealers, and they had not committed but would be coming to look at it, I started to panic. Something about it spoke to me. I’m not naturally inclined, but it felt almost Holy. I wanted it, and I had to think fast. “Can I have a hold on it for 24 hours, and take a couple of pictures. I’ve got a guy in mind.” He hesitated. “Well, I don’t want you shopping it around to everyone, but if you have somebody in mind I’ll give you until closing time tomorrow.” Great. That may be all I need.
As it happened this was a time when I was selling a lot of folk art to a new, high end interior décor and furniture shop setting up over two floors of a converted warehouse in an up-scale neighborhood in Montreal. The owner, a Mr. Camelot, (how do you forget a name like Camelot), was very progressive and pushing hard to come up with the very best. Today I would have phoned him and sent him the picture, but in the day, after he had expressed interest over the phone, there was nothing left to do but drive to Montreal and show him the pictures. The next morning at 8 am we met at the store and he quickly decided based on the two polaroids, and my description that he had to have it, and so it just became a matter of driving the two hours back to Kojak’s and fetching it.
I had to pile up the things I already had on my truck at Jean’s because the ship took up the entire box of the truck from front to back. I roped it in place and started out for Montreal. I can remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday, cruising at 120 klm down Hwy 40 headed for Montreal when suddenly the sky turned black and a torrential summer rainfall let loose. Looking in the rear view mirrors it looked like the Vatican was sailing her way through heavy seas. I was concerned but she was built to take it and there was nothing to do but sail on. As Mr. Camelot’s workers unloaded it and brought it up in the lift, I was thinking that although I was happy the ship had found it’s new dock, the only unfortunate part was that I would have loved to make it the center piece of our Bowmanville booth that year. Still, a bird in the hand.
Something about seeing that ship in those rear view mirrors left a big mark on me, and a little while later I was messing around and found myself painting in a decorative old mirror frame I found, a rendering of the Vatican floating on a cloud off into a starry night . It’s still hanging there on the wall over my left shoulder, and every once in a while I notice it and I think about the two priests staying up late, and using all their leisure time to create such a wonderful home for the little birds.
Ironically, about twenty years later, I walked into set up for the Bownmanville show and there it was. A Quebec dealer had brought it on consignment. The Vatican was looking for a new dock. It did not sell. As I watched them load it back onto the truck for the trip home I said to myself, “that could be me.”