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.

Getting creative with Cupboard parts

In the 1980’s it became trendy to put your t.v. and/or stereo system in a cupboard to tuck them away when you weren’t using them.  Therefore the demand for antique storage cupboards continued to grow throughout the 1980’s, to the point where the supply could not meet the demand.   I would have a half dozen people looking for such an item and I was only able to bring back one or two from the picker’s I frequented in Quebec.  That’s when I started to look more closely at the out building, or out, out building that were the dealers “bone yards”.  Here, for a fraction of the cost of good cupboard, you could buy a good cupboard that had undergone some horrible mutation, such as being cut in half to make it possible to carry up the stairs to the attic where it was relegated to hold the out of season clothing.  Yes, it happened.  People would take a perfectly decent cupboard and buzz it right down the middle (as illustrated below). There were also cupboard faces or fronts, which had somehow lost their bodies, or in some cases were the front of a built-in which may have been saved when they tore down the house and the rest of the cupboard was lost.  There were also lots of doors, both in pairs, and singles, and good bodies of cupboards missing doors.  You name it.

So this situation combined with an interest in doing a little creative woodworking led me to buy a couple of likely candidates for restoration. I determined that I would do the work to bring them as close to their original glory as possible. Using period tools and materials, I replaced missing parts, and would either paint to match the rest of the cupboard, or if the paint as found was not original or particularly interesting I would repaint the whole cupboard to an appropriate for the period colour. cupbo1

Here we see a good before and after example  You can see that this nice large cupboard was run through right up the middle but the two halves retained all the important parts.  The doors, and side panels, hinges, etc.  It was easy enough to replace the bottom, top, and middle board, and then reproduce from old house trim an approximate and appropriate base and top trim.  Mending the back, top and bottom was pretty simple, and it was ready to paint.  There was no good colour under that lime green so I painted it using old flat oil paints of forest green and turkey red with a mustard yellow accent on the trim.  I then rubbed it down slowly and evenly with fine steel wool and paste wax until it had a slightly softened, or weathered look.cupbo2  I wasn’t one for rubbing the heck out of the area around the knobs to try to approximate heavy wear.  To me this is always a dead giveaway.  My objective was to be as unobtrusive as possible. Add a couple of period china knobs and it was looking good.  I made it a point to tell potential buyers everything I had done to restore the cupboard and I priced them accordingly.  Some would prefer to wait for something original, but many were happy to have something that looked good, was less expensive and did the job.

On other occasions I would find a cupboard that essentially had good bones, but were otherwise lacking to some degree.  Below we have a before and after of just such a case.  I liked the high waist and form of this little flat back kitchen cupboard but the top shelving was ugly.  It also showed evidence that the haphazard arrangement of shelves on the right were added later and the shadow was still there on the left side where the original shelf had been.cupbo3  I took out the added selves, replaced the shelf where it had originally been, and added a wavy trim around the openings.  This I admit was an artistic conceit, but damn it does look cute.  There was nothing under the white so I painted it a robin’s egg blue and called it a day.cupbo4








cupbo5This little green and red cupboard was a special order for a customer who needed a narrow cupboard to hold his cd’s that would fit into a spot between two walls.  I found a suitable door and built the rest out of re-purposed 110 year old pine and house trim.






Finally, this cupboard is an example of finding a kick ass old Gothic door and housing it in something simple that more or less suited it, and by doing so turning  it into a useful piece of furniture.  I didn’t touch the original paint on the door, and made the rest of the paint complement the original.

I enjoyed occasionally doing this type of work for a few years while the market for such furniture was strong.  Mostly for the satisfaction of taking something that had originally been really nice, was screwed up, and then brought back to a useful existence.   After while I just got over it, and went back to dealing in all original pieces.  It was fun while it lasted.cupbo6