Cabin Fever beats the winter blahs

cabfever2As I write this the approximately 40 dealers who will be participating in the Kingston Winter Antique show or “Cabin Fever” as it is known, will be waiting patiently in line for their turn to enter the big loading doors and unload their truck inside.  Only two or three dealers can enter at a time and you are expected to unload as quickly as possible and exit to let the next person have their turn.  There are four or five strong, willing helpers provided which definitely speeds things up, not to mention lessening the wear and tear on the dealers.

Cabin Fever is the first important Canadian antique show of the season, being held early in February, and it is always filled with top quality dealers and items.   Many dealers showing here do only a couple of shows a year, with the Bowmanville Spring Antique show being the other big show for “serious” collectors of Canadiana and folk art.cabfever1

Kingston, and Eastern Ontario in general have traditionally been the home to many of the most serious collectors of early Canadian country furnishings  so the dealers work hard to offer their best.  People really look forward to this show.  They line up hours before the 10 a.m. opening to be certain that they will be first through the doors, and directly on to their favorite dealers.  Many of the best items are sold within an hour of opening.

When we were doing shows, Cabin Fever was our favorite.  It’s run by some very nice folks who make it their business to take care of everyone’s needs.  Your rent includes two nights at the nearby Fireside Inn, and coupons for free breakfasts and Saturday night dinner. Because everyone stays at the same place they cut a deal, and pass  it on making it quite reasonable for the individual dealer.cabvever6

The promoters do a good job bringing the dealers and collectors together. They offer a good rate on rooms for collectors,  and throw a big party on Friday night.  Everybody relaxes, has a drink and snack and mixes it up. You overhear conversations like “what did you bring me that’s really special”, and “ did you happen to bring any redware” etc.  The savvy collectors are lining up their plan of attack for those first vital minutes.  Some arrangements to put things aside are being subtly worked out.  It’s all part of the game.cabfever8

It’s funny what you look forward to.  One of the great pleasures of doing this show for me was the coffee room. During set up  they always present a tray of the biggest, gooiest cinnamon buns you’ve ever seen, made by a local bakery.  They are delicious and are sure to raise your sugar levels high enough to provide plenty of energy for all that unloading and unpacking.  That and a good strong cup of coffee and you are away to the races.  The coffee room remains open throughout the show and is the place everyone likes to come to hang out and tell stories. In the old days it was also the smoking room.  It got so smokey in there it was ridiculous, and the nonsmokers eventually forced the organizers to see reason and kick them out.  First to a dinky little closet near the furnace room, and eventually right out of the building.  The smoke was hard to take, but the stories  being told by the old-timers in those days while they enjoyed their smoke and coffee was almost worth the potential lung cancer.  Talk about your picker’s stories.  Once these guys got started it didn’t stop.  Then when everyone gets set up and you are back at the Inn, everyone goes for a cocktail and again the stories begin to flow.   Maybe it is the actual cabin fever effect of the season, but people do seem awfully glad to be getting together, and shooting the crap, as it were.  The set up on Friday can see a lot of dealer business.  You notice a lot of items moving from booth to booth. Deals can continue to be made well in to the night.cabfever3

Saturday morning, 10 am. The flood gates open, and you are run off your feet for the next couple of hours while the keeners swoop through and make their selections.  At a show of this caliber, the first three hours can either make it, or break it.  Sure, you can have a good sale anytime right up to the last minute, but your odds are greatest with this first wave. It can be very exciting or quite frustrating.  People hardly slow down to look.  You can stand there quite a while answering questions and greeting your regular customers before someone breaks the ice and buys something.  You can also sell five or six things in rapid succession right off the bat, and then sell nothing for a long time. While people continue to move in and out of your booth you do your best to stay engaged and make the sale where possible.   By the time you are sending somebody out for lunch sandwiches about 1 pm you’ve got a pretty good idea of how your show is going to shape up.  That being said, it usually worked out well for us and we felt pretty comfortable early on.  It’s a whole other crowd in the afternoon.  More of a general crowd like you would encounter at any outdoor or mall show.  There’s typically a lull in the middle of the afternoon, and then sometimes a bit of action towards closing.  People coming back for something they had looked at earlier, for the most part.  “We’ll think about it over lunch”.  Ya right, but then once in a while they do come back.  Win or lose, by the tie five o’clock rolls around you are ready to head back to the Inn and put your feet up.  Then you’ve got a little bit of time, or a lot of time to relax and enjoy a beverage before dinner, either at 7 or 9 pm.  Being basic, farmer types we always went for the 7 pm dinner so we could be in bed sooner.  The real fun people all went to the 9 pm sitting.  We would hear about it at breakfast the next morning.  Reports on all the fun and festivities which often included the throwing of buns. Too much fun for yours truly.  I remember one year when our friends David and Mary Jo Field introduced me to the joy which is  the martini.  I liked it so much I had another and then had to go to bed, missing even the 7 o’clock dinner.  cabfever7

Sunday is a good day to really look over the show, and get caught up on news and rumors with the other dealers.  Somebody is typically designated to go and fetch a wonderful lunch from a downtown bakery and café called Pan Chancho.   Whoever has the biggest harvest table will host and we would enjoy the spread while everyone kept an eye on each other’s booth.  By 2 p.m. you are anticipating the 4 o’clock finish,  and starting to pack up in your mind.  By 3:30 everyone is getting their boxes ready, and getting their trucks in the line up to be brought in as soon as the show closes.   Everyone waits until closing time and then swings into action.  Some who have no large furniture will park beside the door instead of waiting to come in, and will bring everything to the truck.  This was my routine the last several years of doing the show.  For the most part it was o.k. but I remember a few years when it was -20, and your hands are just burning as you stand out there in the blinding snow trying to tie down your load.  Facing a five hour drive home, and that is on a good night.  If you drive through a snow storm, it can take a lot longer. Mind you, if you are coming off a good show you are feeling great anyway, so you can take that positive energy, tune in a good station on the radio,  and just head towards home.cabfever4

First, we take Manhattan – part two

newy6We had outrun the snow storm, and arrived at the Puck building in Soho before the morning rush.  Although it was two hours before the designated set up time of 8 am, Jeanine and I had already had a morning coffee and a lovely smoked salmon sandwich on rye.  One thing you had to say about this promoter is that he really fed you well, knowing that dealers think with their stomachs.  None of the crew that would help dealers unload would be there for two hours, but we hadn’t slept and were running on nervous energy. Anxious to get at it and set up, so that we could get to the hotel and sleep.  We had rejected the idea of a nap.  So, nothing to do but drive the truck up to the nearest door to our booth and start lugging.  There was no traffic so this was a snap.newy2

We pulled up the door of the cube van and became intimidated for a moment by the size of the load.  We had a good-sized booth and wanted to do well, so we were loaded for bear.  Just then as we were stretching out our muscles in anticipation of the task ahead we spotted a young, black guy, in a black hoody sliding up the sidewalk.  He stopped as he reached us, smiled, and said “Can you use a hand”.   “Well, if your offering, we could actually. I’ll be glad to compensate you”. Without a beat. “Let’s get started. I’m Leroy.  Where are we going with this stuff”?  “Right in here, Leroy.  I’m Phil and this is Jeanine.” A little bow and a handshake. “Nice to meet you both. So what I’d suggest Phil is that Jeanine stays at the booth, you bring the small stuff to me off the truck, and I’ll look after the middle. The big stuff we’ll have to do together. ”Sounds great Leroy. Let’s get at her.” He was a wonderful helper, remaining positive and up-beat the whole time. Full of suggestions; “Well I think you should put that cupboard over there Jeanine”.  It was actually fun.  Within an hour and a bit everything was in front of our booth and we were already half set up.  We thanked Leroy, and asked if he might come back on Sunday night at 6 when the show was over to help us reload. “Well that depends. I’ll try, but I can’t promise.  No problem Leroy, so let’s see” We’ll call it an hour and a half, so how about 30 bucks? Does that sound fair?”  “Oh no Phil.  You’re in the big city now you know.  Everything costs more.  I think you’ll have to do better.”  He was right, of course. My Scottish nature had made me offer him a country wage.  “Alright Leroy, let’s make it $50.”  That’s right, Phil. Now you’ve got it. Now you’re in a New York state of mind.”  Leroy shook our hands, wished us a great show, and headed off in the same direction he was going before. Sometimes help arrives when you need it.newy1

By the time I had taken the truck to the parking lot ($125 dollars there for the weekend.  Now I know what you mean Leroy.) , and we had finished setting up, we were totally pooched.  It had started to snow heavily about 10 a.m. so in the cab on the way over to the hotel later that afternoon we were becoming concerned as to whether anyone would be able to make it to the show the following morning.  We were too tired to care much at that point.  All we could think of was a shower and a bed.

We arose to snow covered streets, but nothing that would stop a dedicated antique show lover.   At 9 am when we arrived at the show there was already a small line of people waiting.  By the ten o’clock opening, there was maybe 60 to 80 who rushed in.  Not a Bowmanville opening night crowd, but serious shoppers none the less.  The first person to approach us was an interior designer from Brooklyn who could barely contain herself with excitement over the sphinx’s.  She asked for the dealer discount which we provided and she immediately said yes and gave us $100 down, pleading with us not to sell them to anyone else while she went to a cash machine to come up with the rest.  We reassured her that with the deposit they were hers, no matter how much extra someone might offer.  I can’t imagine reneging on a deal once money has changed hands, but I suppose there may be some who can justify it to themselves. Somehow.  It wasn’t a problem in any case because although others did admire them, everyone respected the sold tags, and she was back within the hour with the cash and a van to take them.  Several more sales followed over the next two days despite the relatively low attendance.  At least those who came were keen, and decisive.  What surprised us most was the high number of people who knew about Canadian folk art.  Many people would recognize a Charlie Tanner, or Edmund Chatigny, and everyone seemed to know who Maud Lewis was.  We were told by several people that they had gone to Nova Scotia on a field trip arranged by the Museum of Folk Art.  We were in high spirits at dinner on Saturday evening when we met our friends who live in Manhattan.  We had delicious Japanese food that was still quite a novelty to us, in a place our friends frequented.  A couple of glasses of sake and we really started to feel the buzz of the city.

Sunday was cold and blustery, but we did a bit more business and knew that we would go home with considerably less stock and more money, which is of course the point of the exercise.

Leroy was a no show at pack-up, and the gang of young Russian thugs the promoter hired to help load just about gave me a heart attack with their careless and at times downright brutal loading techniques.  At one point I was having to catch boxes full of delicate items thrown at me from the back door of the truck.  Hair raising stuff, and they looked like they might kill you if you complained. Still, we were packed in about an hour and heading down the West Side highway, heading to the George Washington bridge   as the sun set, and the street lights came on. The icing on the cake is when I heard the immediately recognizable first chords of waw waw guitar and the golden voice of Isaac Hayes utter the first lines of “Shaft”.  A song I had always heard as quintessential New York.  It was a magic moment we had there heading down the West Side Highway listening to Shaft.  A perfect moment.newy3

First, we take Manhattan – part one, getting there

newy1In the early nineties one of Canada’s top promoters of high end antique shows bravely decided to take a swing at the big apple.  He decided to piggy back on the excitement around the annual January Antique Week in Manhattan where at the time there was about a dozen shows taking place in the area over two weeks. He managed to rent the well-known Puck Building in Soho, and he advertised widely. He even organized a free shuttle bus to run between the Puck building and the Winter Antique Show held at the Park Avenue Armory, and a couple of other of the big venue shows.  His full-page ad proclaimed “the Canadians are invading New York….”  I forget the exact wording, but the gist of it was we were there to kick American ass.  It didn’t appeal to my humble Canadian nature, and I don’t think it appealed all that much to the American dealers either who stayed away in droves, but I must admit it was a gutsy move.

Things started to unwind a bit before they even got started, when a couple of the established big guns of the Canadian Antique scene decided it was too risky, or the costs were too high, or whatever, and refused to participate.  The promoter had promised folk art, and had asked me to come along, but I too thought it was too large an investment on a first time show and passed.  It was a week before the show when I received the call stating that I was desperately needed in New York, and I could name what it would take for me to come.  Well, I thought about the success of the two Outsider Art Fairs that I had recently participated in, and how I liked and respected this promoter and what he was attempting, so with a nod from Jeanine I let him make me an offer I could not refuse.  It was still a risk, but we love New York, and the thought of selling there was very exciting.  We also had a lot of interesting “gear “(stuff for sale) at the time, including a pair of fiberglass Sphinx that had once graced the entrance of the Bill Lynch Circus which was big out of Nova Scotia in the forties.  We thought they were magnificent but had not been able to get any interest at two or three fall shows in Canada.  We thought they might be appreciated in New York so we put a bold price on them, figuring if we didn’t sell too well otherwise, the sale of “the girls” would help out the bottom line.newy4

I remember that set up was from 8 a.m on Friday January 24, 1992, but you could arrive anytime provided you were set up for the 10 a.m. opening on Saturday.  Our truck was old and open backed, and they were forecasting a lot of snow coming so we decided to rent a cube van.  In for a penny. In for a pound. Logistically we decided to pick up the truck on Thursday at 5 p.m. which I talked the rental company into counting as being picked up the next morning, saving us a day’s rental.  They knew they were going to make good money in the kilometer charges and I was a regular. The concept was to load the truck which we knew would only take a couple of hours as everything was packed and ready. Then we would leisurely have our dinner, take showers, and catch an early night, so we could leave about six the next morning.  On a good day this would put us in Manhattan about 6 in the evening, and we would be able to unload and set up in the evening and hopefully get to the hotel about 9 or 10.  We did not know how long it may take to clear customs, but we did know that we could take all night to set up if we wanted to, and we did not want the expense of another night in New York and another day’s truck rental.

But here’s how the best laid plans can fail in January.  You guessed it.  The weather.  All day Thursday as I waited for the 5 p.m. pick up of the rental the weather reports became more and more alarming about the huge snow storm which was making its way across the mid-west U.S. on line to arrive at our place about sunrise.  Just as we would be leaving.  This was a biggy.  A no kidding, you are going to get nailed snow event.  About two in the afternoon when we stopped for lunch I looked to Jeanine and said.  “I think we have to try to outrun this baby.  We should pack and go right away and at least get through customs and a bit down the road and then pull into a hotel for the night.  At least if we can get out of the Buffalo area it shouldn’t be so bad.  We cannot afford to not make it there in time. We have too much riding on it.”  Jeanine found this a hard pill to swallow but soon saw the logic.  So right after lunch I called the rental place, put on my sweetest voice and talked them into letting us have the truck then. We hurriedly packed the truck with the help of our worker Albert and our son Brodie who was called into duty, and so by 5 in the afternoon we were on our way.

I remember that it was beginning to snow lightly as we entered the customs warehouse in Buffalo.  We sat in a cold little room over-illuminated with a weird green fluorescent light alongside a dozen or so actual truckers. We were all trying to stay warm sipping lousy vending machine coffee, and making small talk as we waited for our number to be called. All the while conscious of the increasing snow floating gently down outside the tiny window.  This was the scene for about 45 minutes which felt like 45 hours when you can see and feel the coming storm.  When we pulled onto the interstate I said to Jeanine, “let’s just go down the road a way to get a little distance in tonight.  I’m feeling awake and every mile we cover, makes one less mile tomorrow under much worse conditions.  I gassed up the beast, and we headed down the line. newy5

The snow was getting thick on the road and the road reports were not encouraging but we kept on.  Then after about an hour the snow started to lessen, and we realized we were becoming slightly ahead of the storm.  We got some coffee at a service center and I looked over to Jeanine who before the stop had begun starting to snooze, and suggested “Look.  I’m feeling o.k. there’s some good tunes on the radio, and the road is clear.  I say, let’s just keep going until the snow comes, or I am too tired, or something stops us.  Surprisingly, she agreed.  What a trouper.  She even stayed awake for the most part engaging in any, and all conversation we could muster as to keep me from sleep.  The hours and miles passed.  The snow started up again, very lightly at first.  Reports on the radio suggested that Buffalo was already virtually closed due to heavy snowfall.  The giant storm was arriving a little ahead of schedule, and it was breathing down our back.  We kept going, not stopping again until about two hours before New York when we stopped at a service center for a half hour nap, and another round of coffee.  I hated to stop but I was at my limit.  Surprisingly that half hour of shut eye was all I needed to wake up and complete the journey.

The snow began to come down heavily then, and I remember that it became very blustery and slippery just as we crossed over the George Washington bridge into Manhattan, and the truck did a little slide to the left just to let us know what we were dealing with.  It was about 6 a.m. and there was no traffic so we pulled right up to the Puck building, realizing at that hour we could unload from the street rather than having to bring everything in from the loading dock.  We looked inside the locked doors and were delighted to see that some people were already there starting to put down carpet and set up drapes.  There was some good strong coffee and some nice snacks set out, and within an hour we had refreshed ourselves, and then they allowed us to begin unloading.  And that’s when we met Leroy. But I will save Leroy for next week and the continuation of the story.  What mattered then, and it was all that mattered then is that we had arrived safely before the storm.newy2

Our times at The North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show

northhat3

a giant moose head that came along for the ride.

When, in about 1986 we decided to expand our show calendar beyond the weekly Toronto Harbourfront Market and the spring and fall Christie shows, we decided that we would like to include the North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show, held annually in early July in the beautiful Eastern Townships region of Quebec. Known as Canada’s oldest antique show, it also had and still has a deserved reputation for presenting top quality antique and folk art to an exclusive and appreciative clientele.  North Hatley is a picturesque charmer of a small town on the banks of Lake Massawippi, and a playground to the affluent and powerful of Montreal and surrounding areas. The show, put on by the local Recreational Society is held in the old curling club with about fifteen dealers set up where the ice would be, and another 6 or so set up in the onlooking lounge.  For the years we attended, until his death in 2007 it was run by the legendary Sam Pollock, who among many other things was the manager of the Montreal Canadians for 14 years, during which they won the Stanley Cup nine times.  As you can imagine, Sam ran a tight ship. Every year he, and his loyal fellow volunteers would do everything from planning and preparing, to set up, and everything else involved in running a top notch show right down to the  making of the delicious home-made egg salad sandwiches at the lunch bar. They may have been up in years, but those ladies knew their way around a good egg salad sandwich. northhat4

In those days, it was not easy to get invited to do the show.  We were lucky to have friends like Peter Baker and Gerry Marks who had been doing the show for years to recommend us.  The first year we had a tiny 10’ x 10’ booth wedged into a corner of the lounge area, which was mostly dedicated to book, pottery, and silver sellers, with the furniture dealers all being in the main room.  We didn’t mind because being an unknown in terms of results, the rent was cheaper and we came with a smaller truck. We focused mainly on folk art, which was what the promoters wanted from us because it was becoming increasingly popular with this crowd. It went very well, and we had a great time to boot.  Good sales, lovely people, and a stunning area to explore.

An interesting feature of the show is the gala Friday night opening.  From 6:30 to 9:00 on the Friday night a $30 ticket buys you first crack at the stuff, and all the delicious hors-d’oeuvres, and wine you want. Lovely young waiters and waitresses passing amongst the crowd with trays. The experienced dealers warned us that opening night it is packed, and it may seem that all they do is talk to each other, and glance over your stuff.  It is a big social event after all.  But not to despair because when they see something they like they are in a good and competitive mood to buy.  Also, they may go home and discuss it, and come back Saturday morning to buy.  It worked out pretty much just like that.  A few sales Friday night, then good sales all day Saturday, and even a few more on Sunday.

We kept the same booth for a couple of years and then moved to a bigger one in the same room when it became available. Then one year when I was doing the show by myself; I can’t remember when exactly, it must have been the late nineties, Sam came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking over a large room upstairs they had for the same price.  He pitched “You can spread out the art and make it like a gallery.  I think you can do well up there.”  I knew the space.  It was a big space, about 20’ x 30’ with two front facing windows which brought in a lot of natural light.  It must have been used for meetings.

my "gallery"  at the North Hatley show

my “gallery”
at the North Hatley show

“Well, yes Sam the space is great, but not to mention that everything has to go up and down the fire escape, I will be on my own up there, apart from the show. It might get pretty lonely”.  “Ah, but don’t forget Phil, that’s where the woman’s washroom is.  All the ladies will pass by eventually, and they’ll drag their husband’s up”.  I thought about it for a minute and decided he was probably right.  It just might work, and if it did the price was right. So I agreed, and started to haul everything up the steep fire escape that led directly to the room. A big task, but much easier than dragging everything through the inside.  It took the whole afternoon to set up, but in the end it looked like a gallery. I even had a table and chairs in front of the window where I could sit and do business, or read the paper in slow times. Not to mention eating egg salad sandwiches. So close. So tasty. So affordable.  I put up a little sign with an arrow pointing up at the base of the inside staircase announcing “Folk Art Upstairs”. I hoped that somebody might see it.

looking into my "gallery" from the hall

looking into my “gallery”
from the hall

6:30 arrived and at first I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake because I could hear the people coming in, chatting and having fun for a full thirty minutes before anyone showed their face.  But then it started.   The first lady poked her nose in, and was surprised to find me and my offerings.  Fortunately she was a folk art enthusiast and went directly to several pieces of carvers she recognized.   She bought three things right then and there, and I was off to the races.  It was out of the way, but when the folk art people found me, they really connected, and would not only buy, but go down and drag their friends up.   I met several people that year that became long -time friends and customers.  It was already a great show by Saturday at noon and then Pierre Riverin walked in.  I’d heard about the “collecting” mayor of the town of Eastman for several years but we had never crossed paths. We talked for over an hour, he bought several pieces, and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  It is a rare and precious moment when you find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff.   Even with all the effort of getting everything up and down those stairs, it was worth it many times over. I had a wonderful show and I was happy up there.  I repeated this for a few more years before the hauling up and down began to outweigh the benefit, so when a bigger booth on the main floor became available I grabbed it.

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

Over the years we got to know several of the Quebec dealers, designers, and collectors who frequent this unique annual show.  For a time many of us participating dealers would get together on Saturday night and enjoy the evening together at some wonderful local Inn or restaurant.  There are several to choose from.  Then through our friend Tom De Volpi, and our friends Jim and Ilona Fleming, we were invited to an annual Saturday night dealer’s dinner held at the nearby summer home of a lovely Montreal designer named Valery.  It was always a wonderful, warm get together, not to mention a delicious dinner; and we were grateful for her hospitality and the chance to spend some happy time with our fellows.

Eventually, as in all stories, the pages turn, and times change, and so it was that by 2008, (I remember it because, although still a good show, it just didn’t feel the same without Sam being there), along with slumping sales, we reached the point and age where we just couldn’t justify the ten hour drive to and from home, and all the work that doing the show entailed.  Mind you this was part of a larger retreat from doing shows altogether.  We truly don’t miss the work, but we do miss the people.  They were some very good times.

the "gang"  at Valerie and Henri's

the “gang”
at Valerie and Henri’s

Looking back at over twenty years at the Christie Antique Show

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine  in our booth, mid nineties

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine in our booth, mid nineties

The Christie Antique show is coming up on Saturday, September 10th at the Christie conservation area near Hamilton, Ontario.  It is Canada’s largest outdoor antique show and draws thousands of people to both the spring and fall shows.  It was started in 1988 by Jeff and Wendy Gadsden in partnership with John Forbes, and a few others investing.  I remember everyone getting excited about the prospect of a new outdoor show in the Golden Triangle area.  At the time the Flamborough Antique show held nearby, also in the spring and fall by promoter Bill Hogan was the only large outdoor show, and it was uncertain how this new show would stack up.  We liked the fact that it was a one-day show held on Saturday so we didn’t need to miss the Harbourfront market in Toronto on Sunday which was still going strong. Also, Christie is an hour away from our home so we didn’t have to factor in staying overnight at a motel.

From the beginning the Gadsden’s and Hogan ran a tight ship.  There was active vetting and anyone foolish enough to try to pass off a reproduction or junky piece would be certain to be brought to task and made to remove the offending item, or in some extreme cases be thrown out altogether from future shows.  Older folk art was o.k., but mass produced, contemporary folk art was not; especially if misrepresented.  I remember one spring show when Jeff made the dealer next to me return the money to a customer, and accept back an Aime Desmeulles horse that the gentleman had bought for a large sum because he was told it was old and rare. He was not happy when someone had told him the truth, and so he went to the promoter’s office to complain.  There was no tolerance for early packing, no matter what the weather conditions.   You could be sure that everything would be on display right up until closing time at five. Load in and load out was carefully supervised.   It was in every sense a well-run show and collectors and dealers alike loved it.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Many dealers would come the night before to set up their tents, and then settle in for the night so they would be ready for the morning rush.  This continues to be the case.  You could not unpack your stock, so in the evening there was a fair amount of partying and card playing going on.  Not to mention a fair amount of subtle trading and purchasing; everyone being very careful not to be caught as this was forbidden. You were allowed to unpack starting at 6 a.m. and so those two hours before the field was open to the public at 8 was crucial.  Typically, you would do a lot of dealer business during this period quite often selling many of your nicer pieces as they came off the truck.  Clay Benson and others would race around buying, following up leads given to them on their walky-talkies by scouts also combing the fields.  The negotiation was accomplished quickly and when a deal was reached it would be completed later in the day when things had calmed down.  I loved to buy at the show but I would always stay in the booth during this critical period because I was most interested in selling, and the type of thing I buy was esoteric enough that it would still be there later on.   It felt great when on occasion you had sold enough to consider it a successful show before the public had even entered the field.  This was the hay day, and everyone was tuned up for it.

Like everyone else, we had our fans.  Early on, there was not a lot of folk art on the field so folk art collectors made our booth one of their first stops.  These “keeners” were also in a hurry to buy and move on, but many of them would circle back later for a visit.  Things were typically busy until about ten, when it would slow down enough that Jeanine could handle the flow, and I would take off for a couple of hours to comb the field, coming back about every twenty minutes to unload purchases, and check how things were going.  I could tell by the expression on Jeanine’s face as she saw me approached with my treasures if I had some “splaning” to do, as Ricky Ricardo used to say.  I loved it on the occasions when I would quickly sell again something she would flatly tell me that “you’ll be taking that piece to your grave with you”.  But then again she was often right, and we mostly agreed.  She would take her turn after lunch, and it was my turn to hold down the fort, and offer comments on her purchases.  We didn’t have any cell phones or walky-talkies at this point which was just as well.  There’s nothing worse in my opinion than trying to explain and convince another of the relative merits of a piece, talking on your phone in someone’s booth while they look expectantly on. It takes the fun out of it.

For the first several years we had a spot right in the middle of a row in broad sunlight.  It was awfully hot until we purchased a tent to provide shade and shelter.  As helpful and necessary as it was, the first twenty minutes in the morning setting up the wretched thing, and the last twenty minutes at the end of the day packing it, where my least favourite parts of the day. Some swearing was involved as you would inevitably at some point pinch your skin putting the stupid thing together. When Marjorie Larmond quit doing the show in the late nineties she was nice enough to bequeath her spot under a big shade tree to us.  Jeff went along with her wishes, and so after that we had a lovely spot at the back of the booth, in the shade to set up our picnic lunch.  These lunches started out innocently enough, but being French Jeanine kept upping the ante until it became quite a production with tablecloths, a range of excellent cheeses, beverages, etc.  Many friends got in on this, and it became a very pleasant way to spend the slow time after two, until it was time to start wrapping up the business and beginning to pack at five.  We tried to keep it subtle and behind the truck and we made sure that someone was always on duty up front should someone wish assistance. Still some people would give us some very odd looks.  This reminded me a bit of the shows in France where at mid-day, everyone sets the table, and puts out their lunches and bottles of wine and you carry on regardless.  The French have their priorities straight.chri4

We happen to agree with a no packing before show end policy so although we would have our boxes and packaging ready we would wait for the announcement that it was over and it was o.k. to start.  It usually would take a couple of hours at a leisurely pace to pack up and leave.  We were always exhausted, but most often happy and satisfied with our day.  There is a Chinese place we like called “the China King” going into Brantford where we would stop and eat before heading home.  I don’t think Chinese food ever tastes better than at the end of a long, arduous day which also provides the satisfaction of good visits, exciting purchases, and if lucky, lots of sales and a full wallet.

We did our last Christie in 2010 which as it happens is also the last year the Gadsden’s ran it.  Anyone who has attended regularly over the years will tell you Christie has changed dramatically, especially in these last few years.  To everything, turn, turn, turn; so let’s not get maudlin about it.  There’s still plenty of wonderful stuff turning up on the field, and many good dealers.  Look harder and filter out the stuff that grinds on your collector sensibilities.  You just might find something to cherish, and you’re likely to enjoy yourself.  Quite possibly snag a nice lunch.  We’ll see you there.chri2

The Fifth Annual Outsider Art Fair – Discovering the work of James Castle

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

catalogue cover for the 1997 Outsider Art fair

Coming back into the Puck building on the cold afternoon of January 23rd I started to feel that wonderful buzz that one feels before the opening of a big marketing event. A combination of excitement, and expectation, mixed with a touch of anxiety realizing that in a couple of hours the throngs would be pouring in, and we would be off and running, either making it, or breaking it.  The booth was set up and looked good, so I had a couple of hours to check out the show.  The first thing I did was cross the aisle to have a closer look at some work which I had been noticing which was deceptively simple in it’s construction but very compelling.  The entire booth of J Crist from Boise, Idaho was filled with the yet unknown work of James Castle (1900- 1977).

out2Jacqueline Crist who runs the gallery acts as agent for the artist’s estate and her gallery houses a considerable body of this particularly driven and prolific artist’s work. On this occasion she put “all of her eggs in one basket” and just brought works by Castle.  Getting up close to the work, I became more and more enamored.  Put together with spit, and soot and cardboard etc, the quantity and variety of his output is astonishing.  I came to find out that he devoted himself virtually full time to his art for nearly seven decades. His drawings, assemblages, and handmade books are compellingly mysterious, and contain a confounding sophistication.  Perhaps this quality is the essence of what attracts me to “outsider art”.  In the case of James Castle I was an immediate fan.  The tagged prices seemed fair.  Asking in the upper hundreds on up for the, in most cases, diminutive drawings and constructions.  Hmmm.   I began to think that I may score one of these beautiful little pieces to take home but of course I had to check out the rest of the show first, just in case there was another Bill Traylor drawing for low money.  Still feeling tough that I had missed out the year before.

a drawing by James Castle

a drawing by James Castle

I noticed the Traylor drawing I had missed out on was present and priced up by a few more thousand dollars. Way to go, Phil.  Then I noticed that Carl Hammer’s booth was this year graced by two large, magnificent scrolls by Henry Darger.  This was the year to promote Darger, as there was running simultaneously with the show, a Museum of American Folk Art exhibition of more than 60 of his paintings called “the Unreality of Being”.  I was interested to note but not surprised that the prices of his work had gone up considerably.

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

invitation to the Henry Darger exhibit at the Museum of American Folk Art

So I made my way from booth to booth growing more determined by the second that a small James Castle drawing was in my future.  I wasn’t going to miss out like last year by hesitating and calling home for a conference.  No, I was going to head right back and make my selection.  But what’s this?  As I approach I see a group of the top dogs including Carl hammer leaving the booth.  My heart began to sink a little, but I told myself to relax, it’s o.k.  So the selection process may be a little bit easier.  I hadn’t set my sites on any work in particular.  I slid up to Jacqueline whom I had become quite friendly with during set up and asked her “what’s up”.  “It’s the craziest thing.  Those big wigs just came over, and bought my entire booth. Lock, stock and barrel. I’m finished here before it opens.  I guess I could just pack up and go home, but I want to stay because I was so looking forward to being a part of the show.”  Nice problem to have.  Well there you go.

A James Castle construction

A James Castle construction

Are you beginning to sense a theme here when it comes to me buying, or should I say not buying at art shows?  Well in this case she had plenty more work at home so I could have theoretically ended up with something else, but I chose to just let it pass, get on with the show, and concentrate on just doing my best to sell, sell, sell, for my friend Joy.  The show went even better than the year before, and we were all very happy with the experience.  Well, except for the missing out on the James Castle thing, but there you go.

Since then a splendid book on Castle has come out in 2009, coinciding with the exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art entitled “James Castle, a Retrospective”.  I highly recommend it.  I’ve got a copy.  I love looking through it.  It sits in place for the one that got away.

cover of the James Castle book

cover of the James Castle book

YOUR TRUCK IS ON FIRE!!!

truckIt had been a successful Odessa show.   On Saturday at opening we had just arrived due to a flat en route , and were bringing things off the truck as people came in.  Turns out people get excited by getting first crack at things, and several pieces were selling as they hit the ground.  The mood was jovial and spirited.  Dan Ackroyd and his wife came by and they were attracted to a two piece painted cupboard that they could see glimpses of on the still tied down load.  She told him to stay there until it was unloaded while she went on down the line, and he was good enough to suggest helping me unload rather than just standing there watching me.  Nice guy.  It turned out not to be the cupboard for them, but regular Toronto customers bought it right after, so this combined with other sales indicated a strong start.  It’s a great feeling to sell enough in the first hour that you have “made your table” as the expression goes, and you can relax a little knowing that even if nothing else sells you have had a good show.  It didn’t happen that often even then in the heyday of the nineties.

The day continued to go well in spite of the sweltering August heat, and we even had a few sales on Sunday. So, when five o’clock closing came, we were happy not to have a lot to load back on, although the Toronto couple needed the cupboard delivered to their home, and I bought a few things in the rough to take home.  By about seven we were loaded and on the 401 heading west.  We checked the radio for traffic and found out that things were moving slowly all the way to Toronto due to an accident and so decided to pull off at Belleville for dinner at a place we like down by the marine.  We felt a bit celebratory, and content to relax, sip wine, and eat seafood while looking out over the boats in the harbor, so by the time we finished our espresso it was probably pushing ten before we were back on the road to complete the five hour (in total) drive.  Feeling good and awake thanks to the espresso.   Of course we were younger then and able to stay up past ten.

So everything was going swimmingly. Traffic was clipping along, the CBC was playing an interesting documentary, the windows were down and the breeze was cool.  We hit Toronto about midnight and I was enjoying the fact that all four express lanes seemed almost empty.  Occasionally a big transport would go whooshing past me in spite us traveling at 120 Km per hour.  I was “in the zone” and enjoying the oddly luminescent mercury vapor lighting and passing cityscape when suddenly there is a pick-up right behind me flashing his lights, and hitting his horn.  “Alright already.  Go by me there’s another three lanes.”   What is with this guy?  Next thing he has pulled up right beside me, and a guy leans out the window and screams “Your truck is on fire!!”  Whaaat?  Looking in the rear view I see flames flaring up into the night off the top of my load and realized he’s right. Yikes! It was several minutes before I could pull off safely, all the while watching the flames get higher due to the combination of plenty of oxygen , and all that dry 100 year old wood.  I jumped out and surveyed the scene.  Indeed, I could see that at least three things were on fire and several blankets had ignited, and of course all this was tightly secured by ropes which are also on fire by this point. The situation looked dire. First things first.  Jeanine was by this point sleeping, and was not at all pleased to be woken up with the news that it was time to abandon ship and run for your life.  We both ran down into the ditch thinking that at any moment the thing may blow just like in the movies.  Then slowly reason supplanted panic, and we realized that the pieces on fire were up on top and we would have to stand there and watch it burn for a long time before it came anywhere near the gas tank.  Let alone heat up the steel of the truck bed enough to ignite anything, so we got busy and started untying things as fast as we could, throwing the burning blankets and ropes into the ditch and stomping them out.  My kingdom for a fire extinguisher.  I have always carried one thereafter, and so there’s a cautionary tale for you.  Other than gloves, all we had to fight the fire was a couple of large bottles of water which we saved to pour right on the burning wood parts of the furniture that had ignited. We unloaded and stomped and smothered for about fifteen minutes which seemed an eternity and before you knew it, the flames were out. The fire was mostly in the blankets as it turns out, and we quickly assessed that only three pieces of furniture were seriously damaged.  Unfortunately, one of them was the sold and paid for cupboard to be delivered to Toronto.  We sat in the ditch for several minutes making sure all the fire was out, as the traffic roared by quite oblivious to our drama.  Nobody stopped and the half expected police never showed up.  We settled our nerves, and tried to figure out how such a thing could happen.  Our best guess was that a trucker had thrown out a lit cigarette and it had landed in among the blankets.  A close call, but half an hour later we were reloaded and back on the road heading home, feeling grateful that things had not gotten worse.  The insurance paid for some of the damage.  Giving us the money we had paid for the cupboard before restoring it, and not the amount we had just sold it for.  However, something is better than nothing.  The hard part of course was phoning our good clients in Toronto and having to inform than that their beloved cupboard had met a deathly fate on the road home and we were tearing up their cheque.  Very nice folks, they were quite understanding although they didn’t entirely believe that we hadn’t sold the cupboard for more money and then made up the story, so they accepted our invitation to come out and see for themselves.  They were quite reassured when they saw it and marveled that the fire had not spread further to destroy more of the load.  We felt the same.  We were able to come up with another cupboard for them, and no one got hurt so I guess you can say that all’s well that ends well. Still, I would advise that get yourself a fire extinguisher, especially if you carry furniture on an open truck. The moment may arrive when you would give your left arm to have one, God forbid.

The Toronto Harbourfront Market in its Heyday

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Every Sunday morning from the early 80’s to the late 90’s, the alarm would go off at our house at 4 a.m. The truck would be packed and the load tied down the day before, the lunch would be made and ready in the fridge, and our cloths would be set out. We would hop out of bed, get dressed, grab a coffee and get underway. An hour and a half later we would be pulling in to the Toronto Harbourfront Market, ready for another day of buying and selling. Rain or shine, we would make the journey, full of hope that the furniture and small items that we were offering would meet the approval of someone there.

When we started in the early 80’s the market would be held on about an acre of parkland near the terminal building, with the 100 or so vendors being set up in parking lots and green spaces right alongside the water. In the winter we would go across the road and inside an old one story warehouse. These were the glory days. It’s hard to imagine now just how “hot” the market was. The boomers in general had done well enough that their Toronto houses were paid for and they were madly buying up all the charming little farms and cottages within about a three-hour drive of Toronto. These rural places demanded antiques of course, being sympathetic to the rural environment, and a refreshing contrast to the city digs.

A loaded truck ready to go.

A loaded truck ready to go.

So in these days there was a large number of motivated collectors and dealers arriving about 6 a.m. vying to pick the best of what was being offered as it arrived. It was a thrill to arrive in our open pick-up truck, and have people run along beside us, racing up to the window to ask the price of the pieces they could see tied to the load. Often they would just say “yes, I’ll take it” even before it was unloaded, because they knew the competition was right behind them. It would happen occasionally that by the time we arrived at our spot, most of the furniture which could be seen was sold. Sometimes we had completely sold out by noon, but would still have to stay until five as to not create a disruption. We had our regular dealers whom we got to know would buy certain items without hesitation if the price was reasonable. You had to pay close attention. Sometimes two or three dealers would be right there as a piece was coming off and you had to be very conscious of who asked about the piece first, and who was next in line. It was easy with two people selling, under this kind of pressure to even sell the same piece to two different people. Tempers would flare. It was not always easy to sort out, and have everyone be happy with the results. It didn’t happen often, but it was difficult to avoid altogether.

Then by the mid-nineties, the Harbourfront development had other plans for the summertime parkland, and the wintertime warehouse, and so they built a brand new market at 390 Queen’s Quay W. As so often is the case, these new quarters under new management meant higher rents and lower sales. It continued to deteriorate until it was not profitable for us by the late nineties, and it eventually closed in early 2003.

Our friend, and avid collector Rod Brook used to say that he wanted to produce a book which presented exclusively all the incredible pieces that had been bought by collectors at the Harbourfront market during those glory years. Sadly, he died before he could accomplish this, but I’ll bet if someone took up the cause it would be an amazing document. For a while there it felt like it would never end, but then like everything else in life, it did.

harbour3-1

loading the truck for another Harbourfront Sunday.

Thoughts and observations on the 2013 Bowmanville Antique Show

bow13shadThis is a picture of my booth at the 40th Edition of the Bowmanville Antique show. which was held Good Friday, March 29, and Saturday March 30th.  As you can see I went heavy on the folk art and light on furniture.  I love antique furniture, but I just don’t have the back for it anymore. If you want to see a slew of good pictures of the show please follow this link –  http://www.facebook.com/groups/126697675589/ to Adrian Tinline’s Canadiana Antiques facebook page.  If you are unfamiliar, this also serves to introduce you to this lively and informative forum.  Join, if you will.

This year Bowmanville was, as always a beautiful show, full of exceptional works of antique and folk art, and early handmade Canadian furniture and accessories.  All 24 exhibitors took special care to select and present their. best wares.  Many dealers put aside special pieces all year to present them here for the first time.

The show started humbly in 1973 when picker and collector extraordinaire Rob Lambert decided to invite the best dealers in the field of Canadiana to hold an annual spring show near his home in Bowmanville, Ontario.  In those early days dealers set up their offerings in their rooms at the Flying Dutchman hotel. When the starting bell rang, people would run (quite literally) from room to room to get ahead of their rivals, and purchase the treasures presented.  It was wild and hectic, with occasional  incidents of pushing and near fisticuffs. People were passionate about their collections back then.  It quickly gained the reputation of being “the” Canadiana show and it’s numbers and reputation grew from year to year.

Eventually the show moved to the G.B. Rickard Recreation Complex where it has continued to be held until present day.  For the past several years it has been expertly run  by Bill and Linda Dobson.  They have worked hard to maintain it’s tradition as a high quality, vetted show.  The vetting process is carried out before the show by a group of experts who go from booth to booth checking everything out for authenticity, quality, and accuracy of presentation.  Any repros, rebuilds, or items not meeting the criteria of the show are removed at this time.

I’ve been doing the show for about twenty years.  I’ve always been happy to do it, but I’ve also always fretted about doing well.  It all happens so fast. The bulk of the business is done within the first two hours of the show, People line up well ahead of time.  From time to time people even camp outside the door overnight to be first in line. With so many beautiful items competing for attention, you have to be ready to rumble when they come running through the door at  6 pm. Chances are that by eight o’clock you will have sold the bulk of what you are going to sell. You are on your feet and on your toes  selling, wrapping, and doing the math during those first two hours and then everyone clears out. By  9 pm you are either happy or concerned, but at least there is a good meal waiting for you.  Bill and Linda have always had wine and beer and food ready to bring out as the show closes, and for the last couple of years Mary Jo Field has been producing absolutely fabulous meals that in themselves are good enough reason to book the show.

Although many come to see the show on Saturday the atmosphere is considerably more relaxed. This is fine because  it allows you an opportunity to see the show, and chat with other dealers. Many of who I now see only once a year at this show. These chats often result in a few more sales or swaps.  Then it’s all over at 4, and within a couple of hours you’re packed and on your way home, either feeling great, or not so great, or disappointed.  It’s that kind of show.  Some people will always do well, and some people not so well.

I’d say that for the past couple of years, like everywhere else, sales have been slower, but there are positive signs too,  Prices are noticeably more reasonable, and interesting pieces, priced right do sell. It’s also great to see the show now includes three young dealers, Ben Lennox, Adrian Tinline, and Fairfield’s Antiques.  All had excellent booths, and added to the excitement with their enthusiasm and knowledge.  I also find it encouraging to see more young faces in the crowd, attendance figures are up over last year.

Here’s hoping that the Bowmanville show will continue to be a great place to see and buy the best in early Canadian antiques and folk art  for at least another forty years.