Remembering the Pierre Laplante auction- a vast collection of Quebec folk art and antiques

We first met Pierre Laplante when he participated for one time in the 1997 Bowmanville Spring Folk Art and Antique show.  We set up just down the aisle from him and before the show was over we had gotten to know each other through many friendly exchanges, and also he bought a giant lumberjack that was our show stopper to put in his indoor pool area at his rural home.  Nice fellow.

It was announced at the show that Bill Dobson was managing an auction of Pierre’s collection on May 17 and 18th, with auctioneers Tim Potter and Cec Knight in Kingston.  It was exciting news as Pierre had a reputation as a very serious collector of Quebec folk art.   We had heard many stories from the pickers in Quebec of the dentist from Montreal that would buy almost everything that they would bring to him.  Often this was said in the form of an apology for not having anything to offer us.

cigar store Indian marked “Illinois”, late 19th cent. – $5,000

If you have the money and the will this is a very effective way to collect.  Once a few pickers know they can rely on you to buy almost anything they bring you, they will put in a special effort, offer everything to you first, and as they say be happy to “make hay while the sun shines”.  It was rumored that after a few years of collecting this way, the barn and out buildings at his weekend farm in the La Prairie region south of Montreal were chock full of wonderful stuff.   Folk art was still a very strong market in 1997 so when the auction came, we broke open our piggy bank, and went loaded for bear.

mounted wooden model of a steamship,early 20th cent. – $750

The catalogue has an interesting two page introduction by Pierre which explains his interest.  It begins:

“The wellspring of folk art lies in the heart, not the wallet.  It is an audacious mix of techniques and materials; a multiplicity of themes and genres.  Folk artists are not artists in the conventional understanding of that word, rather they are ordinary folk without pretense or grand artistic ambitions. Through Quebec folk art, we can glimpse the geographical, historical, social, and religious character of the province, and in that sense, the heritage of Quebec folk art ranks along with its architectural and technological history.”  He goes on to discuss the many factions of folk art and concludes; “ I have collected folk art for over 30 years.  It’s a past time – even a passion – that gives me the opportunity to meet people who live anonymously but have many things to say, and they do speak, in their own way.  Many of these talented people are not considered artists.  They should be. Perhaps if they had lived in another place or another time, they would be considered such. There’s so much great folk art there that deserves a place of honour in all art collections.”

Well said Pierre, and the massive, well organized, two day auction saw many such pieces make their way into some important collections, while realizing some pretty phenomenal sale prices.

Lucien Legare horse, buggy and rider

We were able to buy a lot of stuff. We paid relatively big money for some things like this Lucien legare horse, buggy and driver at $750, but with so much on offer we were able to scoop up many bargains as well.  Like this Felicien Levesque tableau of the Titanic sinking at $625. Well under the money.

The Titanic by Felicien Levesque

Things started out modestly with maple sugar molds, and smaller carvings and accessories going in the expected $200 t0 $400 range, and then people started paying attention when lot 161, a painted whirligig Mountie which is illustrated on the cover went for $900. Soon after a tin rooster weather vane in old white paint realized $1,250.  Then lot 195, a knife with carved wooden handles in the form of a fleurde lis with a man’s head brought $1,900.  Things were moving.

There were a few gasps when a beautiful Nova Scotia document box from 1914 with interlocking hands, hearts, stars, and leaves went for $1,900. Followed shortly after by an oil on glass painting of tugboats on the Saint Lawrence attributed to Captain P. Carbonneau which saw $2,500. An Alcide St Germain hanging flying goose achieved $1,000, and the tone was set.  Here’s a couple of the highlights.  There were many more.

We went on to establish a relationship with Pierre after the auction and were invited to visit him and his wife at their farm.  We had a wonderful evening of laughter,  good conversation and an excellent meal, and we even enjoyed the adventure of climbing up the tiny ladder to the second floor guest room of the century old farm house.  I made sure my bladder was empty though because I didn’t fancy climbing down in the dark to find the washroom.  We realized that for as much was sold at the auction, he had twice as much great stuff still in his collection.   We even had a chance to say a quick hello to our lumberjack friend in his new residence by the pool.

large pulpit decor from Grosse Island where Irish immigrants were held in quarantine, made as a greetings from French Canadians. – $3,100

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Antiques I love, and why I love them – part 2, a tiny tin fiddle

 A friend and fellow folk art enthusiast came by yesterday, and while we were enjoying a nice cup of coffee the conversation lead to an exchange questioning what is it about certain objects that make us like them more than other objects?   Any conversation about personal aesthetics is at best subjective, and at times downright obscure, but it is better than talking about the weather.  So as an attempt to get down to defining the source of the desire to possess I asked my friend, “Hypothetically, If I were to let you take home one item from our collection that you can see from where you currently sit , What would it be”.  After a pause and some reflection he said, “I would take that tiny fiddle hanging on the wall over there”. This surprised me, because we have a lot of flashier, obviously more expensive items around, but yet I understood, and might likely to have answered in the same way.

It is unclear if this 18” long, 4 string fiddle made from an old herring tin and carved wood was ever meant to be played, but my guess is it was playable when it was made.  When I study it, I imagine that it may have been created as a gift to a child to encourage musicianship, but it is equally possible that it was created as a “gag” instrument to be pulled out for surprise at a strategic moment in a performance.  Maybe the guy or gal just wanted to make something to put on the wall, or to give as a gift.  It’s fun to think about, but in the end you get back to the object. 

I remember finding it under a big pile of junk in Alan Chauvette’s  pickers barn near Victoriaville Quebec back in the early eighties.  Alan was standing nearby writing down what we were buying and the prices.  I held it up and said “how much for this”  Alan glanced up and said “$45”.  “O.K. write it down”.  I don’t think he looked closely, or maybe he doesn’t share my aesthetic because I felt it was a steal.  But then again I have come to realize that things of great esthetic value do not always get recognized monetarily.

Some people, or I would imagine many people would think that even $45 is too much for a rusty old tin can fiddle, but they are different from me.  I love the thing.  I brought it home from Quebec.  I hung it on the wall, and to quote the late, great Charlton Heston, “ to get it, you will have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands. “ So what is it?  Obviously, the colour and untouched patina are superb, and the form and hand carved neck and machine heads are beautifully executed in a functional, yet slightly primitive sort of way.  The “F” holes are beautifully cut out, and the construction of tin, wire, and wood is wonderful.  All these elements hit  the pleasure buttons in my  brain, but I think it Is the fact of the herring tin body that puts me over the top.  I looked for a long while half consciously wondering how they got the herrings out of the tin which looks original and undisturbed save for the “F” holes, before I investigated and saw that there is a neat row of nails around the bottom attaching it back to the sides.  Great care was taken to create this.  A real labor of love. I love the way it is, but when I imagine it with it’s bridge intact, and the other three strings, I wonder what type of sound it would have made.  One would assume, tinny.

I found my “sunshine” tractor in a little shop north of London, Ontario a long time ago.  Again it was an item which went straight to my heart, and as I purchased it I knew it was something for me.  Something I would never want to give up.  I’ve bought and sold hundreds of hand-made toys, many more impressive in construction and scale, and yet it is this tractor which continues to sit in a glazed cupboard overlooking my work desk.   I love it’s construction and form and colour, but the element that takes it into my top drawer is the little “sunshine” sign.  I’m not an armchair psychiatrist per say, but it doesn’t take Freud to understand that my love probably has a direct route back to my mother singing me “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” while I lay sick in bed with the measles at the age of ten.  That song is such a bittersweet tour de force isn’t it?  I get emotional just thinking about it.

 

Lastly, we come to “Old 99” (see 99 painted on the door). To be honest I don’t love it nearly as much as I love the tin fiddle or “Sunshine”, but I do love the fact that someone with welding ability, probably a professional welder, took the time and effort to make his or her child an indestructible toy locomotive, with a space at the back to put an engineer.  Is that an old bullet used to make the smokestack?  I hope not.  The poor kid could blow up.

Les Patenteux du Quebec, the “bible” of Quebec folk art

In 1972 three young Quebecoise, Louise de Grosbois, Raymonde Lamothe, and Lise Nantel began research on Les Patenteux du Quebec.  Patenteux is an idiomatic Quebec word that roughly translates into Inventor or Creator.  The book was published by in 1978 with assistance from the Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and The Canada Arts Council.  For six years, the women sought out “Patenteux” across Quebec, documenting their words, locations and creations for posterity and to as they suggest in the introduction,  to be a “monument to our culture”.  You know how certain books become “the Bible” of a subject? Well this is “the Bible” of Quebec folk art.  A work of great importance now, and in the future for anyone interested in understanding and appreciating Quebec culture.

In the introduction they state, “We started research in 1972 at a moment when our culture interest was to return to the source, born from a feeling of sharp Nationalism which succeeded a long period when we were easily dazzled by everything foreign. We perceived that the Quebecois people, who had survived 300 years of systematic humiliation and dispossession,  was not a people without culture and history. The ingenuity that our ancestors applied to adapt to the climate, and to conquer their isolation testifies to this. They had to survive.  They had to reinvent their architecture, their tools, their ways of feeding and clothing themselves, as well as their celebrations.  This process of rehabilitation of our history and culture, which was an attempt at decolonization has given us a new image of ourselves, and brought us to search for our identity.”

 The book records seventy five artists broken into nine geographical regions.  It is a treasure of information which is out of print and now hard to find. It has never been translated into English.   There’s a Canada 150 project I would like to see.  A hardcover version in both official languages.  But it seems the money is going to fireworks and giant rubber ducks.  But I digress.

I love this book even though I struggle to understand the accurate recording of the patois of the subjects.  There’s lots of wonderful pictures.    In my February 18, 2013 blog  “My happy time with Mr. Joly’s whirligig” I recall our first encounter.  “Fast forward to the next summer and we are enjoying a weekend in Quebec, our favourite North American city.  We had heard of a bookstore where it was possible to buy a rare book, Les Patenteux du Quebec,  which we knew to be the “bible” of Quebec folk art.  Published in 1978, it is the work of three young Quebec women who spent  a summer or so traveling all over Quebec documenting, and recording the stories of every Quebec folk artist they could trace.  We found the shop and bought the book, and when we cracked it open, it opened to page 19, and behold there was our whirligig. With a picture of it in it’s original location, and a statement by the artist.  Extraordinary.”

The love and respect shown to the artists is clear by “ the letter to the Patenteux”  which begins the book

“You encouraged us to make this book by telling us that you would like to know what the others are doing.
We wanted everyone to recognize you.
We hope that we have been faithful to what you have told us, and that you will recognize yourself. We apologize in advance for the errors which may have crept into the information we give.
A wonderful memory of you is guarded. Your great vitality has given us the taste to live for a hundred years, to get to do things as extraordinary as you do. “

Over the years I have been able to identify the unsigned works of many artist by thumbing through this book.  Every time this happens I thank the authors, and I inevitably linger, trying my best to decipher the comments, and just letting myself imagine meeting and experiencing the environments the artists create.  It has also helped us track down many artists who  continued to live and work in the places they were recorded.  Folk artists tend to stay put.

For all these reasons I salute and give a heartfelt thank you to the authors for their dedication over the six years it took to produce this book.  You have made a valuable contribution to the Quebec cultural identity, and further to our Canadian Identity.  A book worth having. Try to find yourself a copy.

Remembering the first major unreserved auction of Canadian Folk Art – the Sutherland/ Amit Collection

As with most cultural expressions, the Interest in folk art waxes and wanes over the years.  In 1994 when the announcement for the auction of the Ann Sutherland and Zalman Amit folk art collection came out, the market was hot.  The couple’s reputation as collectors, both doctors who ran a busy behavior therapy and research clinic in Westmount Quebec, was well known primarily  by their many published articles on folk art. They owned a seven bedroom house in Nova Scotia which they filled with a large, eclectic collection of folk art, assembled on collecting trips to Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

Blake McKendry wrote in the catalogue “recently, when Ann and Zalman added another piece of folk art, Zalman had to put it in the wine cellar, saying that not another piece could be stored even in the basement. Much soul searching was required before a solution could be rationalized. The collection had become too large and valuable to be managed by two busy psychologists who wished to move to a much smaller house.  On the other hand, there was no desire to suppress the shared desire to collect.  A solution evolved: disperse the entire collection by auction and divert the collecting urge to a different but related field – Canadian drawings.  The result is the first major unreserved auction of Canadian folk art in all its forms.”    Mr. McKendry went on to say about the collection, “ The entire collection is in the auction.  More than forty identified Canadian folk artists, sculptors and/ or painters are represented, some by several pieces. A large number of these works are by Nova Scotia folk artists and no doubt these will be highlighted by auctioneer Chris Huntingdon’s witty and insightful remarks.”  Lord knows, that be true.  All who attended will remember the high level of theatricality not only in Mr. Huntington’s lively commentary, but also in the evening gowns and over the elbow elegant gloves worn by  the lady presenters, complete with hand gestures, making the whole affair feel a bit like “the Price is Right”.

The auction was managed by Bill Dobson. It took place in two sessions at the Bowmanville sports complex, where the Bowmanville Spring Antiques and Folk Art sale takes place annually. 196 items were auctioned off Friday, January 21 at 6 p.m. , the remaining 336 items went up at 10 a.m on Saturday.

We were very excited to attend. We made a little family vacation out of it when our teen age daughter Cassandra who was beginning to develop an interest in folk art, decided to come along. With Chris Huntington’s commentary and all those competing collectors, it was bound to be an education. I remember as we walked into the complex to the preview Friday at 3, that she looked over everything and landed her attention on a stunning, large mechanized sculpture of a hawk by Ralph Boutilier.  Then she said, “ I know you will be wanting to be buying things for resale, but if you want to know my opinion, I would just spend whatever is necessary to buy that hawk, take it home, keep it; and forget about the rest of it.”  I took her point, but as she observed,  we were primarily interested in buying as much as we could to resell.  We created a list of all the pieces that we were  interested in, and after consideration noted our top bid in each case.   When the auction started at six, we were ready with catalogues in hand ready to write down all the prices realized. We noted that Item # 14, a painting of an Ox team by Maud Lewis sold for $550, which was about what I was paying for them at auction at Waddington’s  in those days.  An erotic drawing by Collins Eisenhauer (1898-1979 )item #18 , which we have owned once, and appeared again at this year’s Bowmanville, sold for a very reasonable $175.  A nice early Merganser (#37) went for $850.  Chip carved crooked knives went in a range from $100 to $500.   We bought a very nice watercolour and ink drawing of the the ship Mauritania by Albert Lohnes (1895-1977) which still hangs in our living room. Also a hooked rug of confronting roosters and  three different roosters by different artist.  We were quite pleased with our take that first night, but knew that the bulk of what we wanted would be offered on Saturday.

Saturday morning the place was packed. Things started slowly with a lot of glass and decorative items.  You know that a Limoges dinner service for eight, nine pieces per setting is in the wrong place when it only brings $150.  People were there to buy folk art and early furniture. It started to get exciting when some early Quebec carvings by the likes of Louis Jobin (1845-1928) started to bring in four figures.  Then the  Boutilier hawk (#317) hammered down at $2,750.  We were the underbidder much to Cassandra’s disappointment, and yes, our almost immediate regret.  I like to say when people are himming and hawing about buying a piece, “You’ll never regret what you buy.  You only think about the pieces you let slip away.”  This hawk is a perfect example. 

Then we hit #343, a carved figure of a youth, polychromed and articulated, mid 19th century. Found in Nova Scotia.  A few jaws dropped when it realized $9,000. Some of the furniture was strong. A painted and paneled Wilno box (#357) went for $6,500. A hooked rug of a woman on horseback (#339) realized $3,400.  A continuous Windsor armchair (#353) saw $2,750.

And so it progressed, slowly. Very slowly.   Chris Huntington’s dialogue although informative and entertaining initially, eventually started to draw things out to the point where most were wishing for a more conventional, let’s get it done style of auctioneering.  Eventually, item # 384 arrived.  A large 205 x 143 cm painting described as a fisherman’s village by the legendary Lorne Reid (1954-1992). Our second most coveted item after the Boutilier hawk, and we won it at $850.  A lot more than we had hoped to pay, but it was ours.   We owned it for several years and loved it in spite of the fact  it was not an “easy’ subject to live with. What appears to be a starving man staring at a fish skeleton is not all that cheerful. There is a bigger story there. One which I will go into another time.

After a couple of more small purchases we packed it in and left for home, about 4 in the afternoon if I remember correctly. There was still about another 100 items to be offered, but we had spent a whack of money, bought a lot of stuff, and were grateful for the experience.  I still wake up occasionally thinking about that mechanical hawk.  What a thing that is.  I wish it were mine.