When I started in this business about 40 years ago (did I just say 40 years – how did that happen?) there were very few auctions of significant collections of Canadian folk art. In 1994, The Sutherland/Amit auction in Bowmanville, Ontario was the first time I recalled a major collection hitting the market and we (being me and my wife Jeanine, my partner in life and business) decided to attend.
We brought along all the cash we could find in our accounts and the couch pillows, hoping to score as much good folk art as possible. By then we’d proved to ourselves that our first love, Canadian folk art, was not only important to us, but also to enough other people that it could be the main focus of our enterprise. Our hope was to snag a few significant pieces while also catching some of the lesser, but equally commercial pieces that ‘fell through the cracks’ and thus presented a good return on investment.
‘One of the greatest benefits of a life flogging antiques and folk art is the people you meet and the friendships you develop.’
Occasionally, another collection would be offered, most often by auctioneer Tim Potter, and we would attend each one, eager to buy pieces that rarely, if ever hit the market. It continues to amaze when on rare occasion you’re able to participate in the dispersal of a great ‘life’s worth’ of collecting.
In Miller and Miller’s upcoming Canadiana & Folk Art auction Oct. 8, 2022, items of great importance are being offered from three distinguished collectors: Marty Osler, Susan Murray and Jim Fleming. Over the years, I’ve not only had the pleasure of selling to all of them, but have also come to count them as good friends. One of the greatest benefits of a life flogging antiques and folk art is the people you meet and the friendships you develop.
Of these three, we first met Marty Osler during our earliest days of turning up every Sunday at the Harbourfront Antique market. Marty always felt like a ‘player’, often arriving with an entourage, and he was a tough negotiator between jokes and friendly banter. We kept it friendly, but we often found ourselves stuck within $5 of a deal with neither one of us backing down. Once when I was feeling cranky and had had enough I told him to take off and leave me alone, that I just couldn’t argue over a few bucks anymore. I then felt bad as I liked the guy and he was a good customer. I was happy when he came back and gave me the amount I was asking, explaining “don’t be angry with me over my negotiation. It’s just the way I’m built. If we go out to dinner I’m happy to pick up the bill, but when it comes to buying I have to negotiate to the last penny.” I accepted this and always looked forward to seeing Marty. Later, he would join me at the Shadfly Folk Art Gallery and Antiques in Port Dover, Ontario where I was always amazed at his knowledge and ability to collect pieces I could only imagine. I realized seeing his two previous auctions with Miller & Miller that he was right all along with his seemingly high prices. Everyone who knows him misses his presence at shows and sales, and we miss his visits to our home in Port Dover which usually ended with a trip to the local Chinese buffet.
‘An otherwise unsuccessful show can change completely if you meet that one good customer.’
I met Susan Murray at an otherwise relatively dismal show I once did in Bracebridge, Ontario. It was a well-organized show, it’s just that very few were interested in my offerings. But an otherwise unsuccessful show can change completely if you meet that one good customer. Susan had just bought a cottage in the region and after buying several pieces, explained that along with the cottage she had decided to collect Canadian folk art. She became one of my best customers. Although you wouldn’t imagine it from her friendly and casual demeanor, Susan was a star lobbyist with her own business employing several professionals in three cities. She said it was rare when she could find the time to go to a show or sale, but if I could find the time to bring pieces to her house before she had to start her work day, she would make it worth my while. I was happy to give this arrangement a try in spite of the fact that I had to leave the house at 6 a.m. to be in Toronto for our 8:30 appointment. But good to her word, she would often buy all, or most of what I brought her. We built a close friendship – and her exceptional collection over the years.
‘I remember sharing a place in Lennoxville where if you dropped a pencil it would roll down to the other end of the room. It was beside a river and we were a bit worried we might end up there.’
Jim and Ilona Fleming arrived on our radar sometime in the late ‘90s, as customers with a very good eye, combined with a high level of motivation to expand their collection. Jim was always friendly and fair, but with a determination and intelligence he’d honed as a politician and put to good use acquiring what he wanted. Lovely, friendly people, we soon enjoyed getting to know each other over reciprocal dinners and visits. Once they got into the business it was always fun to meet up at shows and we particularly enjoyed the get-togethers at the end of the day. These are truly some of the best memories we have of the business. For a while, Jim and I would even share a booth and accommodation at some of the shows, such as North Hatley and Lennoxville, both in Quebec. Because the ladies were at home and we were saving on expenses, I remember sharing a place in Lennoxville where if you dropped a pencil it would roll down to the other end of the room. It was beside a river and we were a bit worried we might end up there.
While all these great memories linger with a life of their own, it will soon be time for some incredible pieces from all three collections to pass into new hands, to make new memories, and new friends.