On buying a large collection of Quebec folk art

surrey and driver by  Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentaion

surrey and driver by
Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentation

Collectors collect, and then eventually die, and then most often it is up to the family to decide the fate of the collection.  In the cases were the subject of the collection is dear to the hearts of spouses and offspring things are dispersed within the family.  In other situations, no one is interested, and so it becomes the responsibility of the family to disperse that which had taken their loved one all those years to acquire. Sometimes collections get donated to a public institution for a tax write-off, sometimes it all goes to auction, and sometimes the preference is to sell it outright.

composition vegetale  by Yvonne Bolduc

composition vegetale
by Yvonne Bolduc

It was such a case when at the springtime Bowmanville show in 1999 we were approached by the wife of a well-known Quebec collector and given the sad news that he had suffered a sudden illness and died.  She came right to the point in suggesting that based on several happy past dealings she felt compelled to offer it to us first. We chose to believe her.

muscleman by Leo Fournier

muscleman by
Leo Fournier

She was only interested in selling it all outright, with no picking or choosing. She pointed out that her husband had kept meticulous records on the purchase of all the pieces and realizing the nature of being in business she would be content to recover 50% of the money spent.  It sounded reasonable but we had no idea how large a collection it was, or just what we were talking about.  We knew and respected the taste of the collector, so in spite of the fact that we had just spent a lot of money a few months earlier to buy the Ewald Rentz collection, we told her we were interested and to please send us the pictures and information she had. She warned us that she was busy with other things and that it would be awhile.

About six months later as we beginning to wonder if something had happened, we received a package which contained photographs and information on the 164 items that made up the collection.  There was a package of rolodex cards which carefully listed where and when each piece was bought, and any notes he had about the carver. It was all quite interesting, and at times downright wonderful stuff.  Many pieces by known contemporary artists such as Leo Fournier, J.C. Labreque, Magella Normand, Robert Paradis, etc. but also a lot of older, hard to come by pieces such as a composition vegetale by the highly -regarded Yvonne Bolduc of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. An absolutely stunning surrey and driver made in 1970 by Albert Conrad Ranger (1894- 1973).

a group of the last carvings by Rosario Gautier

a group of the last carvings by
Rosario Gautier

The last 19 pieces created by Rosario Gautier (1914-1994), a primitive master from Lac St. Jean, Quebec. There were 5 wonderful lamps by the previously unknown to us Adelard Patenaude.   Also included were several early carved candle sticks and wall shelves which we knew would fly off the shelves.  The most interesting, but also potentially problematic was a collection of 12 Quebec crucifix of various age. I sense that today these might find a lot of interest, but in 1999 it was hard to sell a crucifix out of Quebec. We knew of only a couple of collectors.  The notes recorded that he had spent a total of about $38,000, so we are not talking pocket change.  Still, when we went through the list assigning modest retail prices, the value was there, so we decided to take the plunge.

one of 5 finely carved pieces by Leo Laramee

one of 5 finely carved pieces by
Leo Laramee

When you take into consideration the hours and the dedication it takes to build a large collection, to be able to buy it all at once at a good price is an attractive proposition; provided you relate to the sensibility of the collector, and there is an active market to sell it in.   That was the case for this collection in 1999.  Quebec was and remains home to many knowledgeable and dedicated collectors of it’s past, and it’s art.   Most everything sold quickly, and the rest in due course.  Even the crucifix sold, although to be accurate the lot sold to the one collector we knew would be interested.  Had he not gone for it, it may have been a different story.

one of 12 Quebec crucifix  by an unknown carver,circa 1900

one of 12 Quebec crucifix figures
by an unknown carver,circa 1900

Frozen hard boiled eggs – Recollections of Quebec in the winter

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

It is December 1st and we are still enjoying mild temperatures and no snow here in Port Dover on the “south coast” of Ontario, which is how they promote the region around here.  In actuality, it is not a coast at all but rather the north shore of Lake Erie.  You need an ocean to have a coast, and I bring this up because I am not about supporting the deterioration of the language. In any case, the forecast is for temperatures to drop at the weekend to normal values and then if we believe what we are told we are in for a rough winter.  I was looking at the old Bell line van pictured at the top of every blog and thinking about how cold I used to get traveling in that van to Quebec in the winter.winter1

I did my best to fit trips in between snow events, but it goes to say that when you are back and forth every couple of weeks you are going to get caught.  I can remember white outs on the four lane #20 highway when looking out the windshield was like looking into a snow globe. Everything is white snow swirling and dancing in the headlights; everything is hypnotic and there is no hint of an edge to the road, or white line to guide you.  You are lost, and afraid to stop for fear that a transport will run straight over you, but also afraid to pull over because you have no idea where the highway ends and the ditch begins. A total white knuckle scenario which lasts for minutes that feels like hours.

You know those “bridge freezes over before highway” signs you sometimes see on northern bridges.  Well I can attest to that being true.  Late one December night I headed through Montreal, and on to the south shore with the temperature dropping steadily, and the rain starting to glaze up and turn to snow. By the time I reach the Drummondville bridge it was cold enough that indeed the road before the bridge was fine, but the second I hit the bridge that big old truck thought itself a figure skater and decided to pirouette the entire length of the bridge, spinning gracefully all the way across until it hit the dry pavement on the far end, and miraculously I had completed a turn and  the wheels were aligned so I just stabilized and kept going as if nothing had happened.  Good thing I bring a change of underwear.winter6

Another time when I picked up Jeanine at Mirabelle airport after her spending a few weeks in France, we were so happy to see each other and getting caught up that we hardly noticed the ever increasing magnitude of the snow storm which was coming in.  It just kept getting heavier and heavier but we continued to crawl along in the tracks of the transport ahead of us. We made it like this as far as the Ontario boarder before the front bumper of the van was literally plowing snow and that’s when we decided to call it a night.

The old Bell line van held a lot of gear and you could rely on the 350 Chevy engine to start and get you there and back, but the body wasn’t built for traveling for a long time in sub- zero weather, with it’s non insulated sliding side doors. It was meant to be a delivery van after all   I would wrap up in long johns, two pairs of pants, a pair of insulated cover-alls, and a blanket over my legs but even with the heater blasting full it could get damn cold.  I remember one -30 degree morning when surprisingly the engine fired up after turning over so slowly you would think it was being hand cranked.  After leaving it to heat up for 15 minutes I set off to get on with my day of visiting the picker’s barns with my lunch box on the engine cover.  I got hungry about an hour later and decided to have a hard- boiled egg, only to find that it was frozen as hard as a rock.  It’s amazing what you will put up with when you are young and have lots of blood flowing through your veins.  I could not believe the feeling of absolute luxury when the old van finally died and I started traveling in a pick-up truck.  What was I thinking?winter5

Of course the flip side to this potential discomfort and hardship is just how wonderful and special it is to be in Quebec on a , crisp sunny morning with the snow piled as high as the rooftops. Quebec city in particular is absolutely magical in the winter. To look out your hotel window and see the people below hustling along narrow paths between buildings, with every other inch of space being covered with deep,deep snow is unforgettable, and quintessentially Canadian. “”Mon pays, c’est l’hiver” or “My country. It is winter” is more than a popular Quebec expression. It’s a concept to understand and cherish.

I leave you with one last recollection. That of the Northern lights dancing magnificently overhead as I drive the lonely distance between Quebec city and Trois Riviere late at night listening to the CBC, and thinking about what my loved ones were doing at home.  Loving what I was experiencing with the light show and all, but also thinking about my family and bed and wishing I was home.  winter4

Breakfast in Quebec

One thing that I look forward to when on the road, especially in Quebec, is having breakfast at a little, local restaurant.   Typically, we look for the mom and pop place in a small town with a lot of cars in the parking lot.  That’s a sure sign because the locals know best. I love walking into a lively room full of morning light and people, talking, laughing, and generally getting on with things.  It’s that happy time when you are full of hope and energy before the day has a chance to complicate things and wear you down.  It’s all about that first cup of coffee, filling that empty stomach, and getting your communication skills working.  In Quebec, on a good day, these places are full of noise and merriment, and most often delicious food.

At least I can now by Creton at our local Food Basics

At least I can now buy Creton at our local Food Basics

I like to go with the traditional Quebec big breakfast, a couple of eggs, sausage, toast, baked beans, and a little container full of Creton.  What is Creton you may ask.  Well it’s basically pork fat mixed with bread crumbs, and a little onion and spice, and it is delicious spread on toast. Just the thing if you are going to go out in sub- zero weather to cut down trees.  Maybe a few more calories than you need to drive around and search out antiques, but a great way to start the day none the less. I know a lot of people at this point are crying out “cholesterol alert”, but I have a well-researched theory that a small amount of this type of heavy fat is actually good for you. The operative word being a “small” amount, and provided you are active enough to burn it off. Because you are satiated it cuts down on snacking, and your stomach recognizes the fat and puts out the proper enzymes to digest it. Something that doesn’t happen with “low fat” foods, most of which are filled with dangerous chemicals.  But I digress.

I also love that a lot of these places, although clean, have not been professionally decorated or modernized.   It is one of my greatest pleasures to sit, sipping my coffee, anticipating my food and just taking in the local scene.  Randomly tuning in on conversations of people you do not know and will never see again makes me feel energized, and connected. At one with the world.

When on an antique hunt you are basically driving from place to place, and walking through barns with occasional moments of lifting and loading.  So after a big breakfast we then go through the day snacking on things out of a cooler we bring along.  This is not only cost saving but satisfying because even the little grocery stores in Quebec have a wonderful selection of fruits, bread, meats and cheese that can be munched on between stops, or if we feel like a break at a rest stop.  Not to forget those little packages of delicious cheese curds left out on the counter of almost every little country variety so that they are the right temperature to get every little bit of “squeaky” texture and flavor out. This was then.  I hear that now the powers that be have forced the store owners to refrigerate for fear of us becoming sick. Ridiculous. It takes days for curds to go bad.  It’s like buttermilk.  You can leave it out on the counter and it just continues to be buttermilk for days.  The restrictions on raw milk cheese are also ridiculous,  but don’t get me started.

Finally, at the end of the day it was our pleasure to drive around and seek out a simple meal at some place that looked good and not too expensive. Now days we do a little trip advisor research in advance.  It works and saves some gas, but it takes some of the fun out of it.  Over the years we have found our favourite spots and we look forward to revisiting them.

Eventually we took to carrying two coolers, one for the day to day use, and one for bringing back all the products that we discovered and came to love, and can find only in Quebec.

We always make our first stop at a little place on L’Isle Perrot when coming into Montreal on Highway 20.  It used to be a dairy Freeze but then one happy day it became Smoke Meat Pete.  Their slogan is “you can’t beat Pete’s meat” and I heartily agree.  Pete smokes his own, and it is super delicious.  Second only to Schwartz’s in Montreal and even that may be because Schwartz has the advantage of being the traditional favourite.  We always arrive hungry.  Have a huge sandwich, and leave super full with a big brisket in the cooler to take home.  Yes, gratefully they sell full briskets to go.

Jeanine, full and happy leaving Smoke Meat Pete's

Jeanine, full and happy leaving Smoke Meat Pete’s

Next on the tour near the picturesque town of Knowlton lies the giant Lac Brome duck producers.  A great source for packaged duck confit legs.  Duck confit is a traditional food from Jeanine’s home in the south/west of France and is one of our favourite things, so we usually buy ten or twelve packages containing two legs each, and put them in the freezer when we get home.

Then it’s a short drive over to  the Abbaye De St-Benoit-Du-Lac, a picturesque monastery on the top of a hill which produces and sells many award winning cheeses.  Nearby Magog has a couple of excellent bakeries and specialty shops.  You can buy every kind of pate imaginable from rabbit and duck, to elk and you name it.  In Magog you can buy over a dozen types of pates while here in rural Ontario you are lucky to find anything other than a basic pork pate with pepper corns.  Why is this?

Once while doing the Eastman show we found out about a little bakery about six kilometers south of town on Rte 12 that is locally famous for making the most delicious tourtiere you will ever encounter, and the clincher is they sell them for between $12 to $16 each depending on the type.  We put as many as we can cram into the cooler for freezing back home. Excellent.

When you think of Quebec food, you may think of meat pies, baked beans, poutine, sugar pie and those $2“vapor” hotdog stands with those funny little buns, but increasingly you must also think of world standard cheeses, meats and produce.  All this talk is making me hungry.  It’s time for me to wrap this baby up and go downstairs, and make myself a sandwich. Bon Appetit.food1

Nobody wants to tell a mother that her baby is ugly

I got a call the other day from a local woman who was interested in having me do an appraisal.   The lady, who was elderly and spoke very politely, told me that she was downsizing and it was time for her to let go of a special item that she had inherited from her grandmother.  Something she cherished but had no further use for.  An item that reportedly her Grandmother had turned down an offer of $3000 some years ago. “Sounds interesting.  What do you have?”.  “Well it’s a collection of playbills and related records collected from all over the world.”

 Playbills and related records that she turned down $3000 for. Hmmm. I began to imagine that perhaps she was a regular theater goer and had built up a collection from plays she had seen. Perhaps it included rare autographed pictures of past stars, or was so comprehensive in nature that someone would offer such a sum.  If this was the case, I would suggest to her that she get in touch with someone who would be more familiar with such an item.  Someone like Ed Locke for instance who deals in nostalgia.  My imagination kicked in and I started to get a bit excited.

“O.K. Mam, you may have something here.  Is the portfolio handy, so that you can give me more details?”  “Yes, I will go and get it.  ”Grandma was very meticulous. It’s always been kept in a dry closet and it is in perfect condition.” More reason to be encouraged.  A few moments passed and she was back.  “As I said, this was her prized possession and she once turned down $3000 once from a person who was very interested in acquiring it.”  Evidently, I thought.  That’s a lot of money to offer for a collection way back when. I was now imagining letters from the authors and composers, perhaps some personal photographs.  The excitement was mounting.  She had the book in front of her.wgm4

“So please describe it for me.”  “Well it is in a box and there are over a dozen records, and a booklet that tells you all about each piece of music.”  What! I thought it was a personal collection. This doesn’t sound good.   She went on and my heart sank, “The title on the cover is Webster’s Basic Library of the World’s Greatest music.”  All the records and the book are in excellent condition.  “But Mam, what about the playbills?  I thought we were talking about something your grandmother has collected, but what you are describing is a commercial product.” “Oh well I haven’t looked at it for years and I guess I remembered incorrectly as there are no playbills.  However, it is full there of information on every piece of music.”  wgm6

I was on-line as we spoke so I googled Webster’s Basic library of the World’s Greatest music, and up popped a dozen examples.  E-Bay listings, and otherwise.  I went to the first E-Bay listing.  So there are 24 records, correct?  The first record is Bach, the next four Beethoven.   The sleeves have several pages of documentation included of the recordings called “The Listener’s Guide to Album 1” then in Volume 2 “The Listener’s Guide to Album 2″…and so on.  “Yes, that’s exactly right.”  That’s it exactly.  wgm5

“Ah, and this boxed set was released in 1958” It states here that there were several editions produced over a few decades, and you say you have volumes one and two.”  “Yes, that’s what I have.”  And there is no additional material.   No collected photos or playbills, or anything else.”  “That is correct.”  “Well, then I’m afraid I have some bad news for you Mam because the copy I am looking at here on E-Bay which is in excellent condition just like yours, is being offered for $62.99 plus shipping.”  The mood turned suddenly ugly.  “Well that just can’t be.  You don’t know what you are talking about.  My Grandmother was nobody’s fool and she turned down $3,000 back then so it has to be worth a lot more now.”  “I’m sorry to give you this news, but unless there is something else with that box of records, what I am looking at right now in front of me suggests your Grandmother should have taken the $3,000 when she had the chance.”  “No.  that’s just wrong. It’s worth at least $3,000, and you can’t fool me.”  I tried to reassure her that I had no interest in trying to fool her, or in acquiring her grandmother’s treasure.  I was simply trying to let her know that as it so often happens in families, myths get started and can easily be perpetuated until someone comes along and bursts the bubble.  Nobody likes to have their hopes dashed, and having to do so in all honesty is the worst part of the job, but the truth must come out eventually.  I apologized once more, wished her luck, and hung up the phone.wgm4

 

 

Folk art arrives at the door – The Barbara Browne Collection

BBrown5

drawing by Liz Barrett-Milner

It was a sunny, August day in 1995, and we had just finished our lunch when there came a knock on the back door.  We weren’t expecting anyone, and it was rare for anyone to visit without calling ahead.  This, because we were so often on the road that our friends knew to give us the heads up before coming by.  We opened to find a small elderly lady standing there with a big smile and a portfolio under her arm.  “Are you the folks who buy folk art?”  “Well yes, we have been known to do so.  How can we help you?” “My name is Barbara Browne, and I live down the road in Port Rowan, and I have a collection of folk art which I would like to sell.”  “Come right in and tell us about it.”

She explained that she was an artist who had collected Canadian folk art for the past twenty years, and she was about to buy a smaller house in Simcoe, and thus needed to downsize, and recoup her investment to help with the purchase.  “What is the nature of your collection?”  She reached into her portfolio and produced a twenty-page booklet of meticulously hand drawn illustrations of folk art with dimensions, which we later learned were produced for her by her niece, well-know Norfolk artist Liz Barrett-Milner.  “It’s all in here.  There are 185 pieces all told, and I am only interested in sell the whole thing.  No picking and choosing.”  There was some mind blowing stuff, including works by Nova Scotia artists Charlie Atkinson, Charlie Tanner, and Everett Lewis; as well as many Ontario artists such as Clarence Webster, Joe Lloyd, Steve Sutch, and Robert McCairns.  Most pieces were smaller in nature, but there was also a big wall-mounted cow’s head, a couple of 8’ totem poles, a full size deer, and last but not least, the best folk art hooked rug I had ever set eyes on, depicting a fat man and dated 1916.

BBrown2

head by Robert McCairns

“We won’t beat around the bush.  It’s all of interest, but of course it depends on your expectations” She then produced an itemized price list of what she felt would be current list prices.  “I understand you need to make money, so this is what I think it is worth, and I would therefore expect half”.  “In principle that sounds fair so let us go over it and get back to you.”

What followed was four or five meetings at her house where we viewed the items and discussed the prices.  It became a bit complicated as each time we arrived we she had decided that there were a few more items that she felt she needed to keep, but it came to pass that we arrived at a final list and a final price, and so a date was set to complete the deal and pick up the pieces.

On that day, she informed us that she didn’t want to be there as we removed the pieces as it would be sad for her, so she wanted to go for a walk and return when we were finished.  We weren’t at all comfortable with this, but agreed on the condition that we would line up the pieces outside by the truck, and she would review the load before we left, and that’s how we did it.

BBrown1

Barbara Browne and Cassandra by the truck

Barbara was an excellent artist in herself, and continued to be a friend and inspiration until her death several years later.  The collection sold well, and the fat man rug was featured prominently in the John Fleming/ Michael Rowan book on Canadian folk art.

fatmanrug

the fat man rug