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.

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