Rain or Shine

It’s Friday May 5th , and I’m looking out the window at a constant, cold rain, with a forecast for two more solid days of rain to come, and I am feeling  grateful that I am no longer doing outdoor antique shows.  It’s a younger person’s game. Here in Ontario there is an outdoor antique show occurring almost every weekend from now through the end of July, then only a couple of shows in the heat of summer, and again almost every weekend through the fall until the beginning of October.   We used to do a lot of them, and in every contract you would read the phrase “show will take place rain or shine”.  Of course this is a necessity for the promoters because the venues must be paid for well in advance, and all the promotion has gone out, and rescheduling is just not an option.    It is understandable, but can be a dilemma for the dealers if the forecast is for rain.  If you don’t show you are out your contract money and you will not be looked upon favorably by the promoters who rely on dealers to turn up so as not to disillusion the clients whatever the circumstance.  Besides, a bit of rain does not discourage the more serious collectors from getting out so you can have a pretty decent show in any case.  Not always.

I remember the Odessa (near Kingston, Ont.) show in the early eighties where I first encountered a gentleman selling a 10’ x 20’ tent made up of metal poles and corner fittings and a big blue tarp that you bungeed tightly over the frame. It was selling for about $300.    There was nothing much available otherwise except smaller garden tents at Canadian tire, and I had already experienced a few days of standing in the pouring rain at shows so I went for it.  This was before shows offered tent rentals, which for a price will be set up and ready for you when you arrive.  Even when these rentals became available the price was somewhat prohibitive.   My new tent took about a half hour to set up and required quite a lot of swearing and pinched fingers before it stood ready for use, but it was worth it not only for the shelter from potential rain, but just as importantly for the shade it provided on a hot, sunny day.  It was the half hour taking it down at the end of a long day which sometimes wore thin, but overall it was worth the effort.

These makeshift tents worked quite well against sun and gentle rain, but became a real menace on wilder, windy days.  One memorable occasion occurred in the late eighties at a show held in a conservation area near Collinwood, Ontario.  I had arrived Friday afternoon because it was a four hour drive from my home and the show was Saturday only.  The forecast was for heavy winds and rain, and I was doing it alone and on the cheap in case of poor sales due to the weather, so I decided to sleep in my van to save the cost of the motel.   I felt uneasy as I arrived late in the afternoon because I could feel that something big was coming.  The pressure had dropped and the wind was already picking up so I decided to play it safe and not set up that evening.  Most dealers who had arrived were all set up and doing a little preshow business so it was hard to not join in.  I took out the tent and a few large pieces of furniture so I would have room to sleep in the van.  I tied the furniture together and secured a tarp over the pile before calling it a day and having a few beers with some friends to pass the time and make sleeping a bit easier.  It became very humid about 1 a.m. and I had a restless,  too hot, intermittent sleep until about 4 a.m. when all hell broke loose.  The wind came in like a locomotive and amid the crashes of thunder, and flashes of lightening I could hear the occasional thumps of furniture hitting the ground, and crashes as tables of glass and china, flipped and sometimes flew a few feet away from their original resting place.  You could hear some people shouting and see their flash lights flashing around as they tried to save their set up.  I just hunkered down and did my best to rest until sunrise.

When I woke up with the sun the worst of the high winds had passed but the steady rain which would last the entirety of the day was upon us.  I put on my raincoat and ventured out the back door of my van.  It looked like a war zone.  Many tents that had been set up and tarped, had been forced  loose from the ropes staking them down, and had flown like kites for several feet before landing in a pile of tarp and metal that looked like some kind of abstract metal sculpture or bomb site.  There were big cupboards being lifted off the ground with smashed doors and trim.  There were tables upturned over piles of broken smalls.  There were paintings obviously soaked beyond repair. It was devastating. Some people were just standing there crying.  Others were struggling to accept what had happened and doing their best to undo the damage.  It was truly heartbreaking.  Many dealers live fairly close to the bone and for some the loss was substantial. 

I helped a few people set their cupboards back upright and extended my sympathies to many, and then  cleaned myself up in the washroom, got myself a large coffee, and went back to my van to assess the situation.  I was happy that I played it safe and had waited, but now I was faced with the decision to either set up my tent and display in the pouring rain, and hope that a few brave souls would face the elements and maybe buy a few things, or perhaps it was just better to accept the loss, pack it in and head home.  Either way it looked likely the show was going to be a wash and I would lose my investment in the rent and transportation. But I had signed a contract, and I was already there so  I decided on a compromise and set up a smaller version of the tent which allowed me to bring the tarp down over the sides.   I brought out some sturdy, country furniture which would not be harmed by rain, and a few smalls that would not blow away, and left the more delicate things packed.  Attendance was way down of course, but from the couple of hundred people who showed up, I managed to connect with a few keen collectors who bought regularly from me, and was quite happy when five o’clock closing rolled around, to have sold enough to cover my costs and have a couple of bucks to take home.

Sometimes I think  people look at dealers at an outdoor antique show and think “that looks easy”, but let me tell you that is not the case.  Aside from the enormous amount of work it takes to prepare, set-up, sell, and then tear down a display on a pleasant day , it’s nothing compared to the hardship you might endure in the times when the weather decides to rear up and do a number on you.

Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer – part 2

It’s funny how the mind works. I left off last Friday suggesting that this two part story of trouble on the way to the North Hatley, Quebec antique show happened in the same trip.  As I was hitting the “post” button, I realize that the events described actually took place on separate trips, a couple of years apart.  I tend to think out a story and then write quickly.  I had not thought of these events in years, and over that time my mind had blended them into one event.  By the time I realized my mistake, I convinced myself it would make for a better story in any case.  Also, I’ll admit I was anxious to wrap so I could get out in the garden. You know.  Spring fever.  But now as I sit down to write the second part that decision bothers me, not that it matters a great deal;  but I am trying to be roughly accurate in my story telling.  Arguably any good story telling involves a certain level of B.S. and I’ve got nothing against a good tall tale, but there you have it.  Our story continues on the same route, but a couple of years later.

I would avoid an extra night in a motel by arriving in North Hatley around noon on Friday so I would have time to set up for the show opening that evening. I would leave home about 4 a.m. to make the eight hour trip.  The trip had gone well.  Leaving so early there were no traffic slowdowns in Toronto, Kingston, or Montreal, so about eleven a.m. I found myself feeling quite light and happy as I traveled up and down the big hills on Hwy 10  in the Magog area. 

The sun was shining.  Big, fluffy cumulus clouds rolled along the horizon.  Traffic was light, and I could see myself arriving right on time.  I was already unpacking in my mind.  I was heading down a long decline when I saw the transport a few thousand feet ahead of me apply his brakes.  The brake lights came on, and then I noticed a big piece of metal come shooting out from one of his wheels.  A big chunk of his brake had come loose.  I watched it become airborne,  and everything went into slow motion as it bounced once, twice, heading right towards me. In high school I wasn’t any good at algebra, but I generally understood geometry, and so I quickly calculated the distance, trajectory, bounce height, and the velocity, and determined that I was in trouble.  There was a car coming up beside me so there was no switching lanes.  If I tried to brake it might make it worse.  I stayed the course and was relieved when it landed right in front of me, missing the windshield; but making a sickening loud clunk under the truck as it bounced up into the under-carriage.  Looking in the rear view I saw it come out the back and off to the side, and I noticed a wet line on the road coming from the back.  It had hit and punctured the gas tank and I was bleeding gas at a good rate.

The trucker didn’t see it happen, and kept going. I knew I would never be compensated if I didn’t have his license plate number and information, so I floored it and caught up with him, and motioned him over. We both pulled over and he ran back to meet me where I was looking up under the back of the car to determine the damage.  It was a steady flow out of about a 3” gash.  He immediately apologized and said he realized that something had happened to one of his brakes, but didn’t see that it had hit me.  As we stood there watching the gas flow slowly from the tank  he gave me his card and said the company would pay for it, and would I like him to call a tow truck.  I thanked him and looked at the gas coming out and said “ you know it’s only about another twenty minute drive to North Hatley and I’ve got almost a full tank of gas, so I think I will just go for it and see if I can at least get closer, and to a garage and save the tow charge.  With a wave and a good luck we both jumped in our vehicles and got back on the highway.

It only took about ten minutes to realize that yes, I was losing gas at a good rate but the needle wasn’t going down that fast so I just kept going.  I left the big highway driving past a few repair shops because I now had confidence that I would make it, and if I could get to the show and unload, I could call a tow truck from there.   As I came into town I stopped at the gas station which was also the town auto repair.  The owner there could see immediately that I had a problem.  “So how much gas do you have left?”  “I’d say about an eight of a tank.”  “Well here, take this canister of gas, go and unload and if you run out, then dump it in and it will give you enough to get back here. I can fix your gas tank tomorrow so you will have it to go back in on Sunday. “  Heck of a nice guy. Great solution.  So that’s what I did.

The garage was only a few blocks away from the community rink where the show takes place.  When I got there I jumped out of the truck away from the unloading area to tell the people there of my predicament and to make sure that no one was smoking.  Everyone was enormously supportive and helpful. They all came over and helped me unload everything on the parking lot in record time, and twenty minutes later I was back at the garage where they parked my truck out back and put a container under it to catch the remainder of the leaking gas.   We exchanged phone numbers in case he found something else, but otherwise he suggested he would have it ready for me the following afternoon.

I walked back to the show feeling happy not only to be there,  but  anywhere considering the possibility, and at one point seeming probability of a big chunk of metal smashing into my face at high velocity.  It was no problem getting a ride to the motel with another dealer, and I was set up in time and had a great opening night and following show.  My truck was ready the next day as promised, and the trucking company paid for the repair.  I was once again very grateful for the help of others, and for a happy ending.

Coming in on a wing and a prayer- part one

In the eighties and nineties, in spite of spending a lot of time on the road going back and forth to Quebec and doing weekend antique shows all the time, I  never had auto club coverage. It’s not that I’m against auto clubs.  I’m sure they give many peace of mind, and before the days of google map they would plan a nice trip for you.  But I inherently have faith, I guess you can call it, that things will generally go well, and should trouble arise I can handle it.  This may stem from being influenced as a young person when I watched a t.v. interview with Orson Bean, who was a political commentator and popular comedian at the time.  He argued that he doesn’t believe in the value of insurance.  He proposed  that if you saved all the money that you spend trying to insure yourself against every eventuality, you would have plenty of money to cover yourself should anything actually occur.  Of course this was before the days of multi-million dollar liability settlements.  But I took his point, and have avoided buying any insurance other than car and house which I consider essential, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

Here’s how I deal with a breakdown.  The first thing is to get the vehicle out of harm’s way.   Then relax, take a deep breath, and realize that the plan has changed.  When I become comfortable with this fact I then go about finding and contacting the nearest garage.  If possible I seek out local input.  Because I am not afraid to make contact with strangers, if someone is around and looks reasonably normal my first move is to explain my situation to that person, and ask if they might direct me.  Gratefully, breakdowns have been rare, and touch wood, my luck has held.  Here’s an example.

It was the mid-nineties and I was heading solo to North Hatley, Quebec to participate in the mid-summer show there.  The truck was tightly packed and I remember there was an almost full size folk art moose tied to the front rack.  At a passing glance, it looked like I was hunting and got lucky.  So, I was bombing along happily, East-bound on the 401 near Gananoque‎, Ontario when the engine started to sputter and choke.  There was an exit right ahead so I took it, hoping I could make it to a garage or at least a parking lot.  I just made it up the ramp and it started to die out, so all I could do was to pull over as far as I could on the shoulder and it shut down. I was distressed in that it was late in the day and although I had planned to stop soon for the night, I was counting on getting up early and driving straight to North Hatley so that I would have time to set up before the seven o’clock opening.  If it took all morning or longer to repair the truck I would not make it in time.

At first I just sat there, and took stock. It was a beautiful late afternoon. That time of day when you get the wonderful clear horizontal light as the sun slowly sets.  Around me were green fields and a couple of small houses nearby. As the motor stopped I could hear the sound of a lawn mower. Excellent, there’s my first move. I hopped out, crossed the road and waited until the man on the riding lawn mower turned the corner and was headed back towards me.  Putting on my best non-threatening smile and waving, he saw me and waved back.  He drove right up to me and killed the engine.  “Beautiful evening.  I don’t mean to trouble you, but that’s my truck over there.  I’ve just broken down and I need to phone a garage. Could you suggest anyone?”.  We exchanged names.  “Well, I work for the Canadian Tire in town so we could fix it tomorrow sometime, but I’ve got a buddie who’s got a country shop just down the road and he may be able to get you going faster. He’s cheaper and better too”  I appreciated his honesty. “Sounds great. Can we give him a call?” “ Sure can.  He’ll probably still be working at the shop” .   A half hour later the truck was hooked up to his tow truck and we were headed the few kilometers to his shop.  He was a great guy.  Right away he offered to stay and work that evening to get me going first thing in the morning.  He figured correctly that it was the fuel pump and he had a rebuilt replacement on hand. When I asked him about a place nearby that I might spend the night, he suggested that his sister had a bed and breakfast, and he could take me there and pick me up in the morning.  How Ideal is that?

His sister and her husband also turned out to be really nice people, and offered me a beer and some sandwiches when they realized I had not had dinner.  After a good night’s sleep, and seven o’clock breakfast I was ready to be picked up at eight.  The truck was repaired, the bill was reasonable, and I was on right on schedule to arrive in North Hatley for set up.  Thank you kind people, and here’s to serendipity.

But as fate would have it, this was not the only “test” I would experience on this particular trip.  I will continue the story in next Friday’s blog.  Stay tuned, as they used to say.

Learning to Love Auctions

What is it that would cause a teen age boy to attend an estate auction on a sunny Saturday afternoon , when he could be going to the beach with friends?  Thinking back on my sixteen year old self I remember that I found time for both, and that as soon as I discovered them, I enjoyed attending auctions.   Initially I think it was the “game’ aspect of watching two or more determined buyers going at it, trying to outbid each other to win that desirable object.  . Although not inherently materialistic, I find it interesting to observe the dollar value of things on any given day, and compare it to my estimates of it’s worth.  Also,  an auction presents an opportunity  to be among strangers, and observe their interplay.  Something I also love about public markets, both of the food and antique variety. And finally  of course there is the stuff itself.  There, spread out across the yard lie the components that taken together represent the life and  possessions of an individual, or family.

When I turned sixteen my Mom inexplicably and without warning bought me a brand new Vauxhall Viva station wagon.  She and my Aunt Marie were visiting a car dealer friend, and it must have been a heck of a good lunch, or a sweetheart of a deal because they came home with the news that they had both bought a car. One for me, and one for my cousin Ron.  We suspected that alcohol was involved, but naturally we were delighted all the same.  So I had wheels, and occasionally, a local auction advertisement would catch my eye, and I would take some of my hard earned  cash and set off to see what I could score.  Hard earned being the correct term in that I had a summer job on the night shift at the local canning plant.  I worked in the cooking area.  About 100 degrees, steamy, and loud for eight hours.  Minimum wage.  I learned to get by on about four hours sleep so I could have some fun before going back into the abyss.

I didn’t need anything of course.  I wasn’t setting up house or starting a shop.  I would just find myself interested in certain things.  A naive painting.  A primitive, handmade table, a chrome ashtray stand with an airplane on top.  An old plastic radio. The ephemera of interesting small things dumped from a keepsake drawer into a box lot. I loved to sort through it all and find the unexpected. I realize now that as I was looking over all that stuff I was developing my aesthetic.  I didn’t give a hoot for all the fussy glass and china and Victorian furniture , but I started to love the look of old paint, and hand wrought things.  I decided what of the paintings, if any were of interest.  I grew an appreciation for rusty old farm tools.

I didn’t even bid all that often, and when I did I would fall out early as I didn’t have a lot to spend. But I would usually come home with something.   A little gem unnoticed in a box-lot, or something so off base and goofy to most people that no one else wanted it.  I seemed to score a lot of funky, handmade furniture.  Nobody wanted that stuff.

After a few auctions you begin to notice who the dealers are.  The ones who stuck out from the crowd by how often they bid and won,  seemingly without matter of the cost.  In our area there was Madge Wilson, of Grannie’s Boot who incidentally is still  in the business today, and Don Palmer, legendary picker form the Aylmer area.   On anything of great antique value these two would very quickly leave everyone else in the dust and battle it out between them.  They both had great knowledge and taste so I learned a lot by just observing them.  On something I really liked  I would try to outbid them, but I would rarely win.  I don’t think they liked the idea of encouraging a young upstart, although they would very occasionally throw me a bone.  Still, I would most often leave with something, or a few things in the back.

In Dresden, where I was raised we had a Two car garage.  My mother rightfully insisted in keeping her car indoors, but didn’t mind having things stored temporarily on the other side.  When we sold the newspaper business, I decided to keep a few things.  I noticed one day that the bottom of the trays used to store type were made from very old hand carved wooden plates for making  circus posters.  These approx. 2’x3’ works of art showed wild animals, acrobats etc. with a place blocked out to include the local time and place.  They had remnants of the old ink soaked into the wood.  They were very old, and they were fabulous.  I also had a circa 1840 hand feed rotary printing press.  Quite small, but weighing about half a ton.  Then there was a lot of old hand carved type, etc.  So it did not take long for my space to fill up.  That’s when I met my new, old friend Dan.

Dan was always at the auctions.  He was the friendly looking, disheveled  old dude who would give the auctioneer a $2 bid when he need one, and would go home with twenty or so boxes of old tools, hardware etc. and the occasional piece of unwanted furniture.  I got to talking to Dan over coffee as we were checking out the preview.  He was a nice guy and generous by nature.  Since his wife’s death some years earlier Dan had lived on his own on a small hobby farm at the edge of town.   Just a few blocks from my house along the river road.   One day Dan asked me to come by for coffee and he would show me his barn.   I got myself right over there.

After coffee and a chat in his kitchen we went to the barn, and when he threw open the doors I was truly amazed with what lay before me.  There arranged on rows of tables and in cupboards lay thousands of sorted everyday items.  A box of cork screws here, next to kitchen devices, beside hand tools.  You get the picture.  Then over there are stacks of furniture, old bicycles, and a couple of cars including a big, black 1957 Cadillac limousine.  Wow. “Where did you get the limo, Dan”.  Turns out it was the governor of Alabama’s, and he had bought it cheap because the engine was seized. Knowing that I was running out of space he offered me a 10’x20’ space in exchange for helping him once a week to move and organize things.  I liked Dan and had no trouble agreeing to the terms.

Within a couple of years this space was also quite full, but my high school years were drawing to a close and soon I would be leaving town to pursue higher education.  My mother was wanting the other side of the garage back for storing her picnic table in the winter, etc. and I didn’t want to leave my old friend Dan with a problem.  By this point he was finished with going to auctions and wasn’t leaving the house much.

Realizing the game was almost  up, and not wanting to leave a burden on his kids, Dan phoned a local junk collector he knew and sold it all for one money on the understanding the guy would clean out the barn.  I was just about to leave home for London, Ontario so I told him to go ahead and sell my stuff as well.  There was some cool things in there, but there was also a lot of junk.  I think I got $800 for it all which was probably about what I had spent, and which came in handy to buy books, etc.  The stuff in my mother’s garage lasted about another year until a professor from a Chicago University with a printing studies program  found out about my old press and came racing over to sweet talk my mother into donating it to the library there.  Oh, and he’ll take those old Circus printing plates as well.  They had a deal when he agreed to take everything.  I couldn’t really be upset as I had left the problem unresolved for so long, but I still think about those Circus plates from time to time.

How did this whole thing get started?

The other day as a friend was about to leave,  I spotted a couple of small finger jointed pine shelves leaning against the back porch wall where they had been standing for the last six months or so.  They were part of a cheap wooden shoe rack I had bought a few years back at Canadian tire for about $16 on sale.  The finger joints had begun to come unglued and one of the upright supports had snapped, so rather than repair it we bought ourselves a better one .  Although I had no use for shelves, I found it difficult to throw them away.  “Hey, could you use these shelves.  They need a little gluing but they would make a great little rack for drying herbs or something.”  My friend looked at me and said, “I have no use for them as a shelf, but if you want to get rid of them I will use them for kindling for my wood stove.”  I stood there for a moment assessing whether this was acceptable,  and then reason clicked in and I said “Sure, go ahead and burn them up.” I thought they may have served a nobler purpose, but hey, a man’s got to light a fire.  This incident got me thinking about why I have a tendency to save things that I either find interesting as an object, or which I think I might find useful  later on.

I’ve never lived through a period of want.  Never not had enough to eat.  Never even longed for a new pair of pants.  I’ve been a pretty lucky little monkey when it comes to living in a time and place where I have not wanted for much.  So why do I save broken shelves?   And being someone who saves things, why have I not become a collector per say?  Or for that matter, a hoarder.

Over my 35 years in the trade I have encountered and come to know several collectors, and indeed we do have a pretty large collection of Canadian folk art, but this is largely due to my vocation, and the tendencies of my wife Jeanine who does have a true collector’s instinct.  In collecting terms I relate most closely to the crow.  Not in that I am necessarily attracted to shiny things, but in that I tend to pick up and carry away that which I find interesting or pleasing enough that I think I may want to look at it again and again.  Knowing that one day, I may find that I have enjoyed the object enough, and if it no longer holds a special relationship to me,  I am quite happy to find it a new home.  I recognize this makes me more a dealer, than collector.

It is the process I am interested in. Not so much the act of possession. I like handling the stuff and taking it somewhere else where it will be safe. I like to feel I am saving it from the fire.  Also, I like to be surrounded with things that resonate with me. Things that make me feel something when I look at them. Things I find beautiful.

Does  my becoming a dealer come from me not wanting to throw out possibly useful things as much as it does from an appreciation of beautiful things?  Probably so, at least in the first place. As I grow alder I save a lot less for eventualities.

And why with this tendency have I not become a hoarder? The simple answer is  I guess it never appealed to me.   I have always lived in environments that are essentially orderly, and although far from being minimalist, have never been overly crowded or chaotic.  That being said, from a very early age I have always had a room, or a space in a barn , or someplace where I could pile things that were of interest, but not necessary for my day to day life.  My hidey-hole.  My Raven’s nest. I have included as evidence a tricky triple exposure photo I made of myself in a room I had for my “extra” things in London when I was in my early twenties .

As a kid I wasn’t particularly prone to dragging things home, although as soon as I had my own space in the form of a tree house, I started to put things in there. That was when I was most crow-like.  An interesting rock.  A discarded cowboy beIt buckle. You name it. Then when I was about 16 my Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie decided to sell the farm and move to a house in town, so that was when I attended my first auction.

I remember that lovely late spring day, arriving to see everything from this familiar place being dragged out of the house and barn and spread across the yard.  My initial response was sorrow. My next response was interest.   I was there with my parents and my Aunt Marie and cousin Ron.  Ron was eleven days older than me, but already a lot cooler.  He had started to grow his hair longer, and had taken to wearing torn blue jeans and moccasins without socks.  We were close, so when he excitedly told me that he was going to bid on and buy the Bakelite portable record player, I was excited for him, and decided then and there that I would also bid to buy something to remind me of these folks and their place.

Ron’s record player came up first, and he was up against considerable competition. About half way through the bidding he had to ask Aunt Marie if she would cover him if he went over his savings.  She agreed, and he won it for about thirty bucks as I remember.  A lot of money in those days.  It was worth it though.  It was a great sounding unit and loud, and we had countless hours of enjoyment playing large stacks of hit 45’s in his bedroom as we discussed everything under the sun, and ate mandarin oranges from a tin.

The auction wore on and I tried for a couple of things unsuccessfully before winning an old pine drop leaf table which had never been painted  for $5.  It washed up beautifully, and I began to sit at it to do my homework feeling an indescribable closeness to it.  The table is still with me; and although it’s nothing special, I continue to love it for the association.

Uncle Clare and Aunt Lottie’s table today

Anyway, it was on that day when I bid and won a useful table for $5 that something clicked in me. And the switch is still stuck in the “on” position.  Within a year I had made an arrangement to rent some space in a barn from a 70 year old man I had befriended, who lived by himself on an unworked farm at the edge of town.  And the rest as they say is history.

In Appreciation of French Enamelware

I was enjoying looking over all the fantastic offerings coming up at Colin Latreille’s April 1st auction when I came upon listings for 4 French enamelware coffee pots, and it brought to mind the many pieces of Enamelware we had brought here over the years of importing from France. 

Canadian enamelware was one of the first things Jeanine introduced to me as something she would like to collect, and although at first it I’ll admit it was kind of lost on me, it didn’t take me long to gain an appreciation, and find enjoyment in the hunt.

Enamelware represents a gentler, more Romantic time, when even the most humble item was beautifully made.  Less expensive and more durable than pottery, it served to some degree in the most kitchens and households  from the late 1800’s until the mid-20th century.  Much of it was plain white with a colored boarder,  especially in North America, but for a few cents more you could buy one with an applied décor. 

This was especially the case in Europe were factories in France,  Belgium, Germany, England, Poland and Denmark produced work that came in a wide range of Pastels such as Pink, Aqua, Light Blue, White, but also in vibrant Reds, Blues, Yellows and Oranges. There are many variations of Victorian, Art Nouveau or Art Deco designs.  Many pieces contained a shading of the design which was done by “aerography”, an early form of air brushing technique.  Some top-end pieces are even hand painted.  A few pieces are labelled on the bottom but most are not, so although with a little experience it is easy enough to distinguish between North American and European pieces, it takes a lot longer to learn what factory might have produced an unmarked European piece.  Weight is a clue.  Polish wares tend to be lighter.  Thickness of the enamel layers is another; and you would think when language is involved such as labels on storage canisters ,sucre, being French etc,  it would appear obvious.  However, some factories produced product for foreign markets so that really doesn’t prove anything.   In any case, I think the priority of most collectors is a chosen design, form or color.   Like any collection, at first you buy widely, whenever you see the stuff ignoring flaws, etc, but before long you start to recognize that you do not have an infinite amount of space to put all this stuff, and you begin to discriminate.   When Jeanine started collecting Canadian enamelware it was anything blue on white, with a pleasant form, in good condition. Eventually she narrowed her collecting to one blue and white pattern called “Bonny Blue” made by The McClary manufacturing company of London Ontario.  It looked great spread across a long shelf up near the ceiling running the length of the kitchen.  Then one day she decided that was it, and she sold it all off and started collecting Japanese biscuit barrels, but that’s another story and a woman’s prerogative.

McClary “Bonnie Blue”

So when we started our combination family visit/ buying trips to France, although our priority was pottery, we would also scoop up any fine examples of enamelware we would encounter.  And we would encounter it often, and most times it was dirt cheap.  It’s interesting to note how many great pieces we discovered in the basements of fine antique establishments.  Usually for not much money and thrown in a dark corner, but it illustrates, I think,  that even a top-end dealer cannot resist something so fundamentally beautiful even if it doesn’t represent a big return on investment.  Basically, it turned up everywhere.  At the regular weekly markets, in the “depot/vent” or as we call them consignment shops,  and at the “vide greniers” or “empty the attics” village yard sales.  And even as I mention in the dark corners of some top end shops.  It was fun to buy, and easy to ship,  and we always found it sold fast back in Canada, even though it was sold as European.  Not to collectors of North American enamel wear obviously, but to those who were starting to decorate in a French country style.

French enamel lunch tin

Then, inevitably, over time people’s taste starts to change.  In this case it was not here so much.  More and more people continued to be interested in all things French; but there in France.  After mostly  ignoring it for years the French themselves became interested in the “country look”, and so the enamel wear prices rose quickly and availability became scarce.

I still  love the look of the stuff, and the way it makes me feel.  A comfy feeling.  Grounded. I also noticed last year that availably and prices in the French markets seem more favorable,  but I don’t know about the market here.  I expect it’s a bit of a hard sell, and of course the Euro exchange is a big factor.  Still I’m going to be looking to see the results from Colin’s auction with a mind to future trips. There’s always a little room in the suitcase. 

A Ludwig Black Beauty happens to be a very special snare drum

I guess everybody gets lucky once in a while if they open themselves to the possibility.  I think antique dealers wake up every morning believing that this will be their lucky day.  And most nights they go to sleep thinking “maybe tomorrow’.  But occasionally we do find ourselves in the right place at the right time and we get lucky.  It happened to me one morning in mid-90’s.

When we would go into London  to visit my sister, we liked to stop en route at a little antique mall situated in a strip mall right off the 401 and Wellington St.  Although not large, it had a few good dealers and quickly changing stock so it was worth a look.

One sunny, summer morning we were arriving in good time so decided to pop in and do a quick tour.  Jeanine went one way and I went another.  We tend to spread out and then call the other one over when we see something of interest. We are usually quite casual about it, and relaxed.  And so it was on this morning with lots of things to look at but nothing of interest jumping forward.  I looked in all the booths where I would regularly find something, and it was all “sorry, not this time.”  I wandered around for another ten minutes or so and decided it was time to find Jeanine and barring her having found something of interest suggesting we split.  Then I looked down at the floor in a booth otherwise filled with china figurines and tea cups and there on a little box sat a really interesting old snare drum. I don’t have a lot of knowledge of musical instruments, but I know that a good one can be worth a lot of money, and also that this is particularly the case in some handmade instruments such as violins, and in classic guitars and drums associated with rock and roll.  Also, as you continue in the trade if you are paying attention you continue to develop an instinct for age are rarity.

When I laid eyes on this drum, it immediately hit all my buttons.  Obviously early and in untouched but good condition, it was made of pattern engraved chrome.  There on the side above the air hole was an early Ludwig drum logo.  The heads were ripped and the springs were hanging loose but I could see that everything that mattered was there.  I anxiously turned over the price tag already calculating how many hundreds I would be willing to risk on this venture.  $28.  I  was elated.  And below it written old chrome snare drum, and the venders number, so I knew it was legit.  I clung that thing to me like a beloved baby and scurried over to Jeanine.

“Have you found anything?” I asked.  “Nope. What’s that you’re holding?”  I could barely contain myself. It’s a really cool, old snare drum, and it’s only $28.”  “But is it worth anything?  Look the top is all ripped and torn, and besides are we buying drums now?”  Well there are times when you can be patient and have a meaningful discussion, and then there are times when you just want to buy something and get the hell out of there before someone clues in, so I was a tad abrupt.  “Yes, today we are.  I know what I’m doing and we are buying this drum. Trust me”.   Jeanine could sense my excitement,  and so even though she did not share in it, she tossed me one of her famous Gallic shrugs and said “whatever”.

The guy at the checkout was suspicious.  “Where did you get this?  I didn’t see this come in.”  In that booth over there I gestured, and it is clearly priced at $28 with a description, and booth number, so I would like to buy it now please.”  He rung it up registering his reluctance, and as soon as he handed me the receipt, jeanine and I were out of there as fast as we could go. Reminds me of that great Ikea commercial that comes on around Christmas where the woman shouts “Start the car.”  No ne followed us.  So the drum came home.

Without doing any research I knew that we would at least get a few hundred dollars for the drum based on aesthetic value alone.  Then research revealed that it was a very special drum made  by Ludwig from the 1920’s until the mid-1930’s called the “Black Beauty”. It was made from a single sheet of brass that is machine drawn into a seamless beaded shell, and has a specific and revered tone.  We still didn’t know what this might mean in terms of dollar value,  but we realized that we needed to reach the widest range of  drum aficionados possible so we listed it on E-Bay.  Jeanine was listing a lot of French pottery at the time so this was not for her typical buyers, but by putting Ludwig Black Beauty in the listing we were sure to catch anyone doing a search.

I think we started it at $100 thinking that if the worst came to worst we’d be fine with that, and then we went about our business and didn’t check until the next morning.  Holy moly, it’s up to $600 already!  We were pretty happy right there.  Then over the next four days we had the great fun of checking in on advancements.  Watching it creep up and up until the hammer finally came down at $2,800 U.S.  Not enough to retire on, but enough for us to go to France for a family visit and picking trip. What we felt can only be described as ecstatic, tainted only slightly with a nagging suspicion that it was not at all likely to happen again.  At least not soon.  Lightening striking twice, and all that.  Still, I’m a big believer in counting my blessings, and celebrating the little victories.