Door knocking – picking from the source

cupboard found in back kitchen

cupboard found in back kitchen

People, including myself will refer to a day of going to shops, and other dealer and collector’s homes for the purpose of finding stock as “picking”, but the origins of the word “picker”, and the true meaning of the word “picking” more correctly refers to the activities of the foot soldiers of the antique trade.  The guy or gal who goes out, and “cold call” knocks on doors of people they do not know, in an attempt to buy from the source.  There is a technique to the process of door knocking which can be learned in theory, but the success of a “door knocker” is determined by personality, communication skills and an ability to be rejected over and over again without becoming morose.

The trick is to get inside. If you knock and after a pleasant good day simply ask if they have something for sale, most people will send you packing.  The trick is to engage in some casual conversation and let them get to know you a little before you ask about buying anything.  You need to develop trust.  One technique pickers use is to say that they are a hobby collector of old bottles just out for a drive and they thought you’d just drop by and ask if there might be any old bottles in the basement.   Who doesn’t have old bottles in the basement, so if you seem trustworthy enough you are in. Once down there you can look around and casually notice the old flat to the wall cupboard holding old preserves.  It’s best to start small.  Get them to sell you anything easy to part with. Offer them $10 for something you know is not worth more than $2, to start the process and a little enthusiasm, and you may come away with a full truck.  It sounds easy, but it’s not.  You knock on a heck of a lot of doors before there is even a slight hope of success.  A lot of people these days are not that happy to be disturbed, and if you go to the wrong place, it can even be dangerous.  You need nerve and a thick skin to be a picker.

she's rough but she's a survivor

she’s rough but she’s a survivor

When I started in the business over thirty years ago, there were many of these “door-knocking pickers”.  In Quebec, all the Antique distribution barns had several associated pickers who would head out each day, returning late with their finds. Some pickers developed long standing relationships and sold everything to the same person. Others, acted independently and would make the rounds. Meanwhile, the pickers from Ontario, seemed for the most part to work independently, making the rounds to dealer’s shops, but also turning up with their fresh picked stock at outdoor shows, and markets.  Times and attitudes have changed and now this type of picker is almost extinct.  Another endangered species which is moving quickly towards extinction.

But even thirty years ago, most of the great door to door picking was behind us.  You need to go back to the fifties and sixties to hear stories of the almost endless bounty those first door knockers could come up with.  Rural people, especially on the smaller, less prosperous farms saved everything.  New kitchen table in, save the old one in case you need it to butcher chicken’s on it one day, and so forth.  So, when those pioneer pickers would turn up with a pick-up truck, a smile, and a pocket full of cash, there was enthusiasm to sell them whatever they wanted.  No Antiques Roadshow to fill people’s heads with big ideas.  Here comes a guy who is willing to give me twenty bucks for that old table in the back of my barn. No problem. Here, let me help you load it.  There are even stories of pickers bringing along one of those shiny new, easy to clean Arbourite and chrome tables, and very kindly swapping for that nasty old eight foot pine harvest table that had come with the family from the old house.  It took a while, but eventually word got out after somebody went to town and looked in the windows of the antique shop. Then pickers had to work harder, and pay more.

used to hold old paint until it was found in a garage

used to hold old paint until it was found in a garage

Today, as I said, there is only a small fraction of these ground level pickers in our midst.  People are savvy, or they think they are, and somebody told them that old book was worth $1,000.   You may know that it’s worth $400 so you try to buy it for $300 from them. Good luck. That’s how it is today. Also, people don’t inherently trust one another anymore so if someone they don’t know comes up the driveway and knocks, they are just as likely to phone the security company as they are to answer.  Not to mention the price of gas.

There are some legendary picker’s stories out there, some which I will recall here in the future, but there are many, many more which have disappeared with the breed.  There’s still a few people around who could entertain you for hours with their picking recollections, but they are getting up there.  Best to ask them to tell you some stories soon before they forget.

picker's truck pulled up to an old northern farm

picker’s truck pulled up to an old northern farm

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

An Irish-Canadian table makes its way to the Motherland

irishtab2In 1998 we had the great fortune to be asked to purchase an entire house full of Canadian antique furnishings for a country home near Galway, Ireland.  A lovely couple whom we had done good business with over the years wanted to make their newly purchased Irish retreat contain the warmth and aesthetic of early Canadiana furniture, of Irish-Canadian decent where possible.  They had a long wish list, and entrusted us to search and come up with a few best candidates for each item.  We sent photographs and particulars, from which they would pick the winner.  Then we would buy the items and bring them to a shipper in Toronto, who held them until the list was complete when they packed and shipped them in one large container.  It worked well, and we made a lot of our fellow dealers happy by buying up their expensive items.  It’s fun spending other people’s money.

The one thing our friends were keen on having was a great, original harvest table of about 9 or ten feet in length.  Something solid at the right height, with a naturally smooth and attractive original finish.  Not an easy order to fill.  We bought many wonderful pieces over the next 12 months but the all-important harvest table continued to eluded us.  Lots of well-made re-builds on offer, but nothing original.  We were growing concerned because the shipping date loomed, so I started calling everyone I knew, dealer and collector alike to ask if they didn’t know of something.  Eventually  it was Bill Dobson (thanks again Bill) who recalled that a retired, Eastern Ontario collector/dealer of high repute had been storing away just such a table. He did not know if it would still be there, or if it was for sale, but he gave me a name and number, along with a warning that if it was available it would be a lot of money and deservedly so. He also advised me to tread softly as this gentleman was an honest and reliable person, but was not known to suffer fools.  I called the next morning.irishtab4

The fellow who answered was indeed a bit stern and suspicious at first, but after several minutes of establishing mutual friendships, and exchanging philosophies that we arrived at the point where I was told that yes there was a table, and it could be for sale, but for a price that was non-negotiable.  I became excited as he described it. Nine feet long, decent width, Irish-Canadian family from Eastern Ontario, circa 1840,  ”H” shaped stretcher base, original red stained pine boards on top, bottom with early apple green oil paint over the red stain.  No repairs, and no apologies.  It ticked all the boxes.  “Can I come and see it” “Sure, if you are seriously interested, and o.k. with the price which is $_,000, and as I said before non-negotiable.”  A chunk of cash for sure, but if it was as described, it was rare and exclusive and therefore a piece were the seller can pretty much name his price.  I assured him I was serious and so we made the arrangement for me to come the very next day. A twelve-hour drive, there and back to look at a table. I’d say I was serious. On arriving I felt a bit anxious, but soon relaxed when I found my host to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and interesting.  We had a great talk and a good look around his home and out buildings before heading out to an open drive shed in the middle of a cattle field.  There, covered with a tarp, resting upside down about eye level on top of a large piece of farm machinery rose the magnificent green tapered legs with stretcher. What I could see of the top was covered with linoleum, and so I asked “what about the top?”  Are there are any problems like it being gouged or badly stained?”  “The top is excellent and untouched. There’s no problem.”  To bring it down and flip it over was a big deal, and his reputation and my gut told me to trust him so I did some measurements, took some pictures and went home.  After talking with my clients, and getting an enthusiastic thumbs up, I found myself arranging to pick up the table the following week on our way back home from a Quebec trip.  Jeanine was on board this time.

In Quebec we happily filled our van with smalls, and then started home.  About two in the afternoon we were near Cornwall, when I phoned ahead to make sure we were still on track for picking up the table.  “I’m here and ready for you, and by the way you are bringing cash, right.”  “Cash? That’s a lot of money to be walking around with. No, I just assumed you would take my cheque.”  “No I’m sorry, not that I don’t trust you, but it has to be cash or no deal”.   “O.k. I understand. leave it with me and I’ll figure something out and call you if there is a problem. Otherwise we’ll see you soon.”  We banked with Canada Trust and so we drove directly to a Cornwall branch in a suburban strip mall near the highway to see what we could do.  We were fortunate in that as the staff explained, they do not usually have that amount of cash available with such short notice, but as it happened they had just received a large cash deposit so they could do it.  We left a few minutes later with a big brown grocery bag full of mostly small bills.  It felt like a heist.irishtab3

We drove directly to our destination and after a long counting session, and a lot of friendly talk along with a nice cool beverage, we found ourselves out at the drive shed with the cows mulling around us, trying to see what the action was.  I backed up the van to the table, and saw that it lined up perfectly to be slid directly onto the roof rack.  There had been talk of bringing it down and lifting the linoleum but I could see that it would be best to leave the linoleum in place to protect the surface, and it was so damned convenient to just slide it forward. “So if you’re sure that the top is O.K., let’s just slide it on and tie it down.”  “If it is not as I told you, and you are unhappy, bring it back and I’ll return your money.”  I knew he was sincere so off we went, paying out all that cash for a table without having seen the top of it. Well placed faith in your fellow-man, or just plain fool hardy.  It would soon be revealed.

We got home about midnight and so it was first thing the following morning that I had my worker help me take the table up into the church.  I gingerly lifted the linoleum which was held on by just a few small tacks around the perimeter and after peeling off a couple of layers of old newspaper I beheld just what I wanted to see.  A superb, original top with undisturbed patina and no gouges or ugly stains. Just as advertised.  It cleaned up beautifully, and a few days later I dropped it off at the shippers, soon to be on it’s way.  We had the thrill and honor of visiting our friends/clients in Ireland the following year to see the finished project, and it was an absolute delight for us to sit and dine with them at this splendid Irish-Canadian table that had made it’s way to a new home in Ireland.

the table at it's new home in Ireland

the table at it’s new home in Ireland

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

“living the dream”, a church full of great stuff in the middle of nowhere

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later on when most of the furniture was gone and it was largely folk art

I can remember standing in the partially dilapidated main hall of the old Wyecombe Methodist church for the first time, and thinking “this would make a fabulous antique store.”  It’s 1981 and Jeanine has read a classified ad in the London Free Press about a church for sale in Norfolk County for $21,000.  We decided to take a ride in the country and have a look just for the fun of it. Seemed harmless enough.  Well damned if we didn’t fall in love with the vaulted, 28’ patterned tin ceiling, and surrounding 14’ Gothic windows.  We loved the size, exposure and location of the place and saw the potential; and so in spite of all our friends and family advice against it, we bought the dream.  Thus along with our new alternative life style we began several years of hard labor renovating and maintaining the joint.  We soon discovered why these church halls are typically taken on by a community, and not individuals.  Everything is large scale.  Thirty gallons of paint rather than four.  We loved the challenge. We could see the phoenix rising from the ashes.int6

As life demands, simultaneous to the renovation we began to buy and sell antiques, to meet our needs, and so our main concern was to sell every weekend at the Toronto Harbourfront market. We didn’t think many would find us in the outback and we were happy with the income from the market.  But it wasn’t long before dealers and other customers started to make the trip out to see what we had at home.  At first it was more of a warehouse than a show room, but over the years we refined and added showcases, and shelving and by about 1990 it was usually quite full and fairly organized.  Of course everything had to be dragged up and down the wide, front steps, but we were young and stupid; and didn’t care.  Like many of us at that time who found themselves being full-time antique dealers, it was the alternative lifestyle thing that attracted us. It was more out of an aesthetic interest than any well thought out business plan that the sales room of Old Church Trading came about.  That and the natural tendency for things to pile up as you continue in this business, and thus the need to find some place to keep them.int4

In the fall of 1996 a Quebec dealer friend of ours started to bring huge loads of mediocre stuff to a Guelph auction every other week, and proposed that he also bring along some good things for us to sell for him. Things were changing in Quebec.  We had the room, and had done good business together over the years so we said yes.  It was great.  He kept bringing us wonderful things.  Not a lot at a time, but excellent quality.  We loved to see him pull in.  It was like Christmas.

Our Harbourfront days were now behind us, but with some good dealer trade and with a schedule of about twelve shows a year we continued to go through a lot of stock.  People who had not been by for a while often commented that it was amazing how much the stock kept changing.  That, and it just kept getting fuller.  Cupboards were now in rows and stacked one on top of the other.  I felt proud that it was looking like a Quebec picker’s barn. I loved to stand at the front of the big room and look over the variety of interesting things.  Although visitors were few and sometimes far between, those who made the trip usually were serious and went home with something, or often with lots of things.  We really didn’t advertise all that much, or encourage passing trade.  There was a small sign at the road but that was all.  Most who came were people we knew from shows.  Or people who learned about us through them.  I guess we could have pushed harder, but we like staying a bit out of the way.  Mysterious and a bit aloof.  Not in a “pearls before swine sort of way”, but just by saying “here it is.  We think it’s great.  If you think it’s great and want to take it home, we are happy to help you carry it out. Otherwise, we hope you had a nice time and it was worth the drive.”  You could be that cocky back then.int3

Late in 1997 our Quebec pal’s arrangement with the auction house ended and he stopped coming, so we bought about half the stock we had, and sent the rest home with him.  The market was changing, and so were we.  We were becoming more interested in the folk art, and although I loved the furniture, my back was just about pooched, and the furniture market was slowing, so we decided to downsize and focus on smalls. Oh how dismissive a young me and my colleagues had been watching the “smalls” dealers bringing in their boxes, and now I was one of them.  Less and less furniture came up those stairs.int2

Our daughter Cassandra had left for Queens a few years earlier, so by the year 2000 we started to think about ourselves in the not too distant future being old, and a bit crazy, rambling around the church in old patched sweaters, so we decided that a move into town and a new scene was the next project.  It took us three years to wind down the church and move on to Port Dover, and don’t get me wrong.  We’re happy we did.  But for a while there we were living our dream.  A great shop, in the middle of nowhere, which almost nobody knows about.   Looking back, I can see that it was almost like building a folly.int1

Remembering top dealer Marjorie E. Larmon

marg6Marjorie Larmon did not suffer fools.  Born on November 14, 1912, she had been interested and involved with antiques since an early age.  Her parents Roy and Ruby Sackrider were both interested in things from the past.  At an early age, she and her father would look for antiques while selling maple syrup door to door.   In the 1960’s she and her husband Clarence were able to buy the family homestead just outside Burgessville, Ontario, and Marjorie came into her own as an antique dealer, naming her business “The Pig and Plow”.  If she got to know you, and liked you, she would tell you stories of her glory days, driving her hearse to Quebec and filling it with merchandise. Going into the ditch on the way back from a winter auction, etc.  She placed many antiques in important collections over the years, and was an enthusiastic collector herself.  Her barn was full of wonderful things, but the real treat was if she were to invite you into her home, where she kept the best stuff. marg3

Over the years she gave lectures, interviews, and conducted study classes at museums and historical societies. In 1982 the Art Gallery of Windsor held a show of her folk art collection entitled “Celebration”. In 2005 she brought out a little book outlining the story of her life entitled “Diamond Buckles on my Shoes”  She was the real deal.  She developed many lasting friendships and was always friendly and welcoming to knowledgeable collectors, but if she found you to be rude, or boorish, she did not hesitate to send you packing.  When we moved to the church in Wyecombe we were told by other dealers to go and see her, but be careful in our approach, especially in trying to get a better price.  Frankly we were intimidated and didn’t even go to see her for a year or two later, at which point we felt we had enough knowledge to not be rejected outright.marg4

On that first visit we realized that there was no reason to worry.  She had heard of us through her main picker Jim Sherman, who had occasionally bought things from us for her.  So when we gave our names she was immediately warm and welcoming, suggesting that after we had finished in the barn she would make us a cup of tea and show us her collection.  We made a couple of purchases that day, and in the way of negotiation we simply asked her for her dealer price.  She looked a bit stern at first, but then offered a fair reduction and so we accepted without argument. We had made her good books.  Actually, that’s the way we have always preferred to negotiate.  Most people respect this approach and give you good prices. Also, I find it saves a lot of energy.marg5

So we loaded our purchases and made our way to the house for tea and a tour.  Mind blowing.  What a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours. Her collection was better than what you would see at most museums, and she was sharp witted and quick to give you the story behind every piece.  We made several trips to see Marjorie over the following years. She and Clarence were always welcoming.  So it continued until after the death of her beloved sister Ina in 2000, and Clarence’s death in 2002 when it gradually became too much for her to continue even with the generous help of Jim Sherman, and so in 2006 she decided to retire.   She and Jim Sherman arranged a classic one-day auction, with nearby auctioneers Jim Anderson, and Gerry Brooks, and everything went up for sale.  It will be ten years since that historic auction this September 23rd, and will be the subject of a future blog.marg1

There are a few funny stories of Marjorie turfing out dealers for one transgression or another, but I prefer to remember her by telling about a visit we had with her shortly before she closed the shop.  She had called and offered to sell us back a beautiful pair of large finials that Jim had bought for her a few months earlier.  We couldn’t quite figure out why she would want to do this, but we liked the finials and the Bowmanville show was coming up so we said yes, and made the trip to pick them up.

We finished our business in the barn and headed to the house for tea.  We had a lovely chat and then she said “Come into the living room.  There is something I want to show you.”  We sat ourselves on the couch and waited feeling very curious.  “Phil open up that corner cupboard and you see that decorated box on the top shelf; bring that down for me.”  I brought down the most gorgeously carved and polychrome painted Scandinavian wedding box I had ever seen. “Jeanine, you are French, and this wedding box is French so I want you to buy it from me and take it to the Bowmanville show, and sell it for a lot of money.”  We knew it was not French but we were smart enough not to contradict her, and so we timidly suggested that yes it was a lovely thing to offer us, and how much did she want for it? We were bracing for a big number and wondering if we could afford it.  “Give me $200.”  We could not believe our ears.  We wondered if maybe she was losing it a little bit or we hadn’t heard right, or perhaps she meant to say something else, so we questioned her. “Marjorie, that’s a wonderful offer, but are you sure that’s all you want?  I mean….”  She cut me off.  “No that’s the price and I won’t take a dollar more.  You’ve been good friends and customers and I want you to sell it at Bowmanville.  Do we have a deal?  Of course we do Marjorie and thank you.

We took it the following month to the show as she requested.  We labeled it correctly as a Scandinavian wedding box in pristine condition with no repairs, and from the collection of Marjorie Larmon; and then we were totally shocked when the vetters came by and said we could not show it because it was not Canadian.  Feeling a mix of rejection, disappointment, and some relief as we were happy to take it home and keep it for ourselves we put it aside.  Then within moments, the vetter who had rejected it for inclusion in the show circled back and asked, “So what’s my dealer price on that.”  We held our nose and sold it to him.   Marjorie was thrilled when we told her what we got for it. We didn’t tell her the circumstance.

One of the last times we saw Marjorie we were delighted when she pulled up with Jim Sherman to see our newly opened Shadfly Antiques shop in Port Dover.  By this point she was using a walker and she moved slowly and carefully, and of course this was after the auction and she was living in a retirement home so she was not considering any purchases, but she seemed to really enjoy herself and wrote a nice little note in our visitor’s book.  Short and sweet.  “A great little shop”, and her signature.  She looked up at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, I would have written something longer, and better but you gave me a lousy pen.”  Ah Marjorie, you were an original and we miss you.

Marjorie inspecting a quilt

Marjorie inspecting a quilt

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.

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loading the truck for another Harbourfront Sunday.