Discovering the stash

Most people are happy enough to keep their money in the bank but some folks, be it because they have lived through a time of bank failures, or shortages such as the war; or just because they have a general mistrust of institutions, and prefer to keep their money in their sock:  Or hidden in a cupboard, or buried in the back yard, etc.  People can be very imaginative when it comes to squirreling away money.

We live in Norfolk county, where if you ask around, you will hear lots of stories of lost and found money. This is perhaps due to the large contingent of Belgian, Dutch, and other European farmers who immigrated here to develop the tobacco industry. A lot of these people had experienced unstable financial times. Or maybe it’s the same everywhere.

Friends who bought a local farm decided to wash and put back the existing curtains, only to find that when they opened the washing machine to add softener, the drum was full of curtains and floating money.  The old couple had sewn hundreds of dollars into the hem of the curtains.  They had died without telling anyone.  Thus it was just dumb luck which averted their fortune being thrown into the dumpster.  I know a family that spent weeks digging up the back yard when they realized that dear old dad, before the Alzheimer’s had set in, had been burying money in canning jars back there over the years.   It makes you wonder how much money is swept away and forgotten.  The problem with secrets is that they are quite often buried with their creators.

It was on a late fall trip to the pickers barns in Quebec in the early nineties that I had my brush with dumb luck.  I was solo on a quick two day, there and back run to pick up more stock for the then active Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto.  During this period I would often leave our house at 4 a.m. make the ten hour drive to Victoriaville; then see three or four pickers that afternoon and evening before crashing.  In the morning I would make a few more stops before heading home about noon, which meant I would arrive home  about 2 or 3 a.m. if all went well.

On this particular trip I ran into some particularly nice western furniture at the barn of Alan Chauvette.  It turns out that the rumors were true.  One of the local pickers had family in Manitoba, and in spite of not speaking much English, he had returned home with a huge load of western pieces.  Many interesting  Ukrainian and Dukhobor pieces as well as furniture from early French  settler’s homes.  I bought five or six excellent cupboards, and chests,  feeling happy to have arrived at the right moment to have a crack at it.  I also spent a lot of money. More than I had budgeted.  Jeanine has always kept the books, (thank goodness as I am a disaster), and my method was to simply spend all the money I had, and write a couple of cheques if necessary.  I didn’t keep a running balance, but had an intuitive sense of when to stop.  Well, I threw that sense right out the window this time, for the opportunity to buy some good Western pieces. I knew I was pushing it.  We kept a tight operating budget in those days, so if we didn’t want to dip into savings  a big buying trip meant I really had to have a good Sunday at the market.   I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would work out.

Phil with Marcel Gosselin

I was feeling pretty satiated when I arrived at picker Marcel Gosselin’s barn about 10 a.m. as a last stop before returning home.  I was still picking up a half dozen stoneware wash sets from him every trip, because they were still popular at the market and he was still finding lots of them. He was also my source for Aime Desmeulle’s folk art, which was selling well at the time.  As I finished filling in the last remaining little spaces in the load with smalls, I was about to write the cheque when Marcel piped in “Are you sure that’s all Phil? I’ll sell you that small cottage chest for $175.  You know you’ll get about $400 for it.”  It was a tidy, little 4 drawer pine cottage chest from Nova Scotia which were very popular at the time.  I looked at my full truck and thought about the cheque book.  “Thanks for the offer Marcel, but look, I don’t have room for it.”  The load was already well above my racks. “ Look there Phil, on the right side of your tailgate.  I can put it on its side and tie it on right up there.”  Sure enough, I could see he was right. “O.K. Marcel, throw it on and give me the total.”

I got home very late, and went straight to bed.    Next morning, going into the kitchen for coffee, there sat Jeanine looking at the cheque book, and looking worried.   “I understand this was a great opportunity, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a good market on Sunday, or we’re going to have to dip into the savings to cover ourselves.”

By the time we got all the wonderful pieces upstairs we were feeling good about it, even if it meant cutting it close.   We still have a wonderful four colour Ukrainian  sideboard from that load that I fell in love with while scraping it down.  We had a good dinner,  and I decided to go upstairs to look over the stuff one more time before hitting the sack.  I was excited by the pieces, but also feeling concerned about so completely blowing the budget. I continued to open the cupboards to inspect the interiors, and  when I finally came to the little pine chest I had bought from Marcel, I opened the top drawer to see how well it travelled in and out. What’s this?   I was amazed to see a small plastic wallet lying there in the middle of the drawer.  How did that get there?  It wasn’t there when I looked at it in Quebec.  Then I remembered that we had put the drawer on it’s side to fit it into the load, and sure enough, when I felt up inside under the top, someone had built a little open shelf up there.  The wallet was full of crisp, old issue Canadian cash.  $1,300 in all.   I couldn’t believe the luck.  I could easily imagine that had I continued to carry it upright I would have sold it  full of cash as it were, and maybe even then it would go into a home upright,  and never be discovered.

Jeanine was having one last coffee before going to bed.  Yes, she can do that. She looked puzzled when I handed her the little wallet.  “ I know you are concerned that I spent so much, and I thought this may help”.  It took her awhile to believe my story, and our good fortune.

When I saw Marcel a week later, he was surprised when I shoved a folded hundred in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?”

“Never mind.  Just take it and don’t ask any questions.”

Nova Scotia or bust

One summer, back in the late nineties we decided to take a quick trip eastward combining some antique picking and vacation activities as a fun time together with our daughter Cassandra before she left high school to go to university.  The objective was to have no specific plan, and wander eastward as we saw fit buying along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaching Nova Scotia.  Even if we didn’t have the time on this trip to explore further once we got there. We put about $4,000 in an envelope for purchases, packed out bags and food hamper into a full size cargo van we borrowed from our son Brodie, leaving him our pick-up to use while we were gone.  We were not looking for furniture on this trip, and felt it safer to leave our small sized purchases locked up inside a van at night.  We got a good, early start and made it to our regular stomping grounds around Victoriaville in time to do a quick circuit of the picker’s barns there before settling in for the night at our regular spot, the Motel Marie -Dan in St. Eulalie.  We didn’t buy much, wanting to save our money for buying in the previously untraveled regions to the east.

Day two, after a hearty breakfast we shot down #20 expressway past Quebec city until the village of St. Jean Port Jolie.  This pleasant little village on the banks of the St. Lawrence river is the home of the Bourgault brothers, who founded the “École de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli” in 1940 with the support of the Quebec government.  The carvings became very popular with tourists and locals alike, and still today the village is chock a block with wood carvers.  To be honest although we greatly respect this form of carving, we were hoping to find  a unique folk artist more towards the lunatic fringe of the spectrum who might be hanging out there.   We had a great time looking at the museum and several shops but didn’t find what we were looking for.

After a nice lunch we made our way along the coast on the two lane Hwy # 132 past Riviere-du-Loup  as far as Trois Pistoles, a trip which would ordinarily take about an hour, but in our case took over four due to several stops at yard sales, markets, and shops. We hadn’t expected it, but we found a lot of wonderful stuff and by the time we stopped for a coffee in Trois Pistoles the cargo area of the van was almost full, and our envelope was over half empty.  We had a little conference, and thinking of Nova Scotia decided that instead of going further into the Gaspe we would turn back to Riviere-du-Loup, hang a left on Hwy #85 which becomes Hwy#2 as soon as you cross over into New Brunswick  and on a good day with steady driving will get you to Amherst, Nova Scotia in about eight and a half hours.  Our goal was to sleep in New Brunswick.

It was dark and raining by the time we had made our way past the endless forests of this part of Quebec and then we hit the construction.  On a 1 to 10 scale of “hairy” driving this was a solid eight. Pounding rain, mud, and lots of starting and stopping. We white knuckled it for about another hour and finally made it to Grand Falls, New Brunswick.  It was pushing ten o’clock, and we really needed to stop.  Turns out there was a convention in town and we were turned away at every motel, and feeling quite desperate before we got the advice that the only room we could get would be at a bed and breakfast in a recently converted old nunnery a few miles out of town.  We’re not big B and B fans but great.  We’ll take any port in this storm, and after a call ahead to confirm they had a room, we went off with the little hand drawn map we were provided.

The storm grew stronger, and the thunder and lightning more brutal, as we wound our way up into the surrounding hills, until there in a flash of lightning worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, the huge, old, Victorian Gothic Institution appeared, with a giant cross above the entrance;  and we drove up the hill and pulled into a parking space, wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to.

I can’t recall, but I’m sure we were greeted by a perfectly nice night attendant, although in my imagination he was someone akin to Igor.  We were lead down a long, dark, corridor to a pair of rooms which seemed to remain untouched from their former life.  I remember the institutional green walls and old steel beds.  They were small, and basic, but a blessing in our situation.  In bed, with the lights out, and the still frequent flashes of lightning and thunder I began to hear people moaning in the distance. It kinda freaked me out, but I had no desire to investigate.  I put the pillow over my ears and did my best to fall asleep.  It was a long night.

Next morning, we met Cassandra in the canteen, and after coffee and hot chocolate decided to get the heck out of there.  “Did you hear all that moaning” Cassandra said.  “It really freaked me out”.  “  “Me two.”  “Me three” said Jeanine.  We saw the caretaker on the way out, and he explained that it had become a B and B, slash old people’s home, and that some of the old dears were restless.  The place didn’t look all that spooky in the daylight.

In town, we sat in a little mom and pop restaurant, finishing breakfast and discussing our plan.  We had learned that the construction which we had only experienced about an hour of, continued for several more hours ahead as they were making the highway into a divided four lane.  Desperately need by this point especially with all the summer tourists.  We sat there for a while discussing our progress, and what lay ahead.  We were grateful for the use of Brodie’s van, but it was noisy and fairly uncomfortable.  We realized we had a full day of crappy driving ahead just to reach Nova Scotia, and then we would only have a couple of days to look around before heading back.  Then our conversation turned to how much we loved Quebec City, and we could be there by late afternoon if we turned back.  It was an easy decision for us.  We called our favorite, cheap hotel in old Quebec, Le Manoir des Remparts and made a reservation for three nights.   We had a wonderful time, and felt happy and relaxed on the twelve hour drive home.  Resolving to make it to Nova Scotia another time.  Perhaps, looking into air fares.

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.

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.

First, we take Manhattan – part one, getting there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four favourite folk art pieces by “unknown” artists

It is the day before Christmas eve, and I will soon be going downstairs to carve up apples for pies.  Here’s wishing you dear readers, a very Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays as the case may be, and the best to all in 2017. Don’t let the door hit you in the arse on the way out 2016.  I think we will all be glad to be done with you.

So rather than go into a researched account of things past, or detailed description of some refinishing procedure, I am simply going to show you four of my favourite pieces in our collection, whose maker is unknown, and talk a bit about them.  I think it will be fun, and I will be able to get to the kitchen quicker.

Much folk art is unsigned.  Many who make folk art do so for their own gratification and therefore don’t bother to sign.  Others are perhaps unsure as to whether they want to own up to it. For whatever reason, it can be frustrating to a collector when you come across something you really like, and then can find no clues as to how to find other pieces by the same hand.  Sometimes you continue to find pieces you recognize are by the same maker in the same places, so you know you are getting close, and eventually you may be in the right place at the right time to have someone tell you who made them. Other times you may find a piece which totally blows you away, and never, ever see another piece like it.

Walking around the house I have chosen these four pieces for your consideration.un3

  1. Elephant on a fungus

We came across this unsigned piece on the second floor of Alan Chauvette’s pickers barn in St. Valere Quebec, in about 1985.  I remember the excitement I felt as I pulled it out from underneath a pile of blankets, and immediately fell in love.  Obviously local, the creator was dreaming of exotic, far-off Africa, with palm trees carved in relief against a blue sky.  I have always had a thing for the tree fungus you come across in the woods, which seem to scream out “do something with me”, and after finding lots of pieces involving fungus, I realize that there are many who share my enthusiasm.  For a while there I collected fungus folk art.  That was before Jeanine expressed that she found many of the pieces ugly,  and she developed a theory that they may be releasing spores into our environment,  so she would prefer that I move on.  This piece however, because she loves it as much as I do, and because the fungus is painted clearly falls into a different category.  I cannot logically explain why this piece falls into as Chuck Heston so famously put it, “if you want it, you’ll have to wrench it out of my cold, dead, hands”.  But it truly delights me every time I look at it.un2

  1. Chief Sam Goose

This piece was again found in Alan Chauvette’s barn about the same time.  All we could learn about it was that it was picked in New Brunswick, and had stood at the entrance to a Mi’kmaq reservation for many years.  Oil paint on plywood, it is a wonderful example of how time and nature can have a hand in making a truly unique piece.  If I were to see it new, I would enjoy it for it’s graphic qualities, but it is the fact that the paint has deteriorated into the grain of the plywood in such a beautiful way that it  looks as if the chief is looking at us through the fog of time.   I bought this piece for next to nothing, and actually put it out at three or four shows with a price tag of about $175. Then one day when packing up I took a good look at it and thought “are you crazy. This is a wonderful thing.  They’ve had their chance, and now it’s mine.”un4

  1. A couple of stout fellows from New Brunswick

Again, it was love at first site.  This time it was in the early nineties and I was having a quick look around the Inside/Outside show held near the Toronto airport before the crowd was let in. I came across these fellows in the booth of Cathy Constantino, of Timber River Farms.  Cathy is a sweet woman and you can always count on her giving you a good deal so I simply asked for her best price.  She knew they were very good, but she gave me a reasonable price in any case based on her purchase price, which makes Cathy a “class act” in my books.  I put them in my case and didn’t show them to anyone for fear they would offer me “stupid” money, and I may be tempted by the bottom line.  You can’t eat art, but you can’t live without it either.  She actually did have the name of the artist, which I actually did write down in my day book which is how I kept track of everything in those days, but it would take me hours to go through those books to retrieve it now, and as I mentioned I am anxious to make pies. I will do it one day, and write it on a note underneath them but these fall into the category of “I never found another piece by the same artist.” So, it can wait.  Aren’t they just the greatest figures of manhood that you can possibly imagine.  They hit all my buttons.un5

 

  1. Two facing off Magpies

Last, but not least, we have a couple of Magpies facing down each other over a worm (missing). We acquired this at last spring’s Aberfoyle show, from the booth of Craig Gamache.  Jeanine has a large collection of bird carvings, and we knew right away that these fellows would have to be added, so it was with some relief that he offered them to us at a decent wholesale price.  He had no information on the artist but mentioned that there had been a twig, looking like a worm, between their beaks when he bought them; but the worm was broken when he found it, and had become lost.  One of these days I’ll get around to putting a new worm between them so the tug of war can continue, but in the meantime, it just looks like they are having an animated conversation.  As Magpies will do.

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