My Meeting with Morrisseau

Man changing into Thunderbird,
Panel one

In 1976 I was making multi projector slide presentations with a couple of other guys. The kind of thing you would see at Expo 67 or the 1970’s Ontario Place, if you are old enough to catch the reference.  We called ourselves the Awes Studio, and we were based in London Ontario.  We specialized in shows about culture or art, and created works that were an artform in their own right.  There was not nearly as much money in this area as there was in creating commercial industrial or business presentations, but it was a lot more fun, and we were creating a lot of work.

Norval Morrisseau

So it came to pass that in 1976 we pitched Ontario Place on the idea of creating a multi-screen slide/ sound spectacular of Anishinaabe artist, Norval Morrisseau’s interpretation of the Ojibway legend of The Man who changed into a Thunderbird.  After a bizarre late night meeting in the executive board room of Ontario Place which I will save the telling of for another time, we had a go-ahead and some development money,  so the first thing we wanted to do was to contact Mr. Morrisseau and run the idea by him, hopefully for his blessing and in the best case scenario his involvement.   At this point Morrisseau was out of the public eye and reportedly living on the street in Northern Ontario somewhere.  It didn’t look good, but we started the process.

The one thing we knew was that he had been represented since the beginning of his artistic career in 1962 by legendary Yorkville gallery owner Jack Pollack, and although Mr. Pollack was by this point very ill and reportedly about to close his gallery, we contacted him anyway with the hope of a meeting.  He agreed, and what a lovely person he was. He made us feel most welcome, listened to our story, and suggested that although he did not know where Norval was, and could not guess what his response may be, he would do his best to contact Mr. Morrisseau and set up a meeting.  He had family contacts that he could send a message through, but he was quite concerned that no one had seen Morrisseau in quite a while and that reports suggested he was not doing well.  We crossed our fingers and waited.  We set about contacting various native organizations for input and approval.   People didn’t think about Cultural appropriation in those days, but we were serious and committed to the idea of employing as many Native artists as possible, and of studying the story and consulting until we felt certain we were presenting it as accurate and sympathetically as possible.  It  quickly became tough sledding as we came to discover that there was a vast difference in the opinions of the many scholars contacted.  We learned that Norval Morrisseau had received quite a bit of condemnation within the Native community itself for his telling of the story in book form.  Many believed that it was only to be passed on verbally and within the tribe.

The more we consulted, and learned the harder it became to see our way forward  . To find a spiritual core to hang on to, and build from.  It was all looking rather bleak when we got a call from Jack Pollack that Norval Morrisseau had been found, and very surprisingly to all of us, he had agreed to come into Toronto for a meeting to hear what we had to say.  We were equal parts ecstatic, and apprehensive.  What if he rejected us totally?  On the other hand we held great hope he may co-operate in the fact that he agreed to meet us.

We told Jack Pollack before the meeting that we would describe the project to him, and then ask Mr. Morrisseau if he would be willing to paint six large panels to depict the stages of the man turning into Thunderbird.  We would then photograph the works and use them in the production as the main, integral “sign posts” in the progress of the story.  We would also ask him if for the duration of the show, we could display the paintings along the long corridor leading to the theatre because as the line was usually quite long, and slow people would have time to contemplate them as they waited to move forward.  Mr. Pollack suggested that if Norval agreed to go ahead, he would rent him a studio for a period of months and provide him with the stretched canvas’, a budget, and the supplies necessary to produce the works.

We weren’t even commissioning him.   He would own the paintings. There would be money for allowing us to use them of course, but  we were basically just asking for him to create them,  and allow us use them for this purpose.  Preposterous when I think about it now. All we could offer other than the money was that thousands from all over Ontario and beyond would see them, and a faithful depiction of the story he told in his book.  The date for a meeting was set for a cold  February Wednesday at eleven o’clock, at the jack Pollack Gallery.

My work mate, and friend Ford Evans and I piled in my old Volvo and made it through  blizzard conditions on the 401 from London to Toronto with only moments to spare before the arranged meeting.  We had to park a few blocks away because of the snow. Time was running short so when we arrived at the gallery we burst in all red faced from the fast walking and strong wind;  with our, as it was at the time, long hair blown every which way, and snot frozen to our facial hair.  And the kicker was, that as it happened we were both wearing full length antique fur coats.  Mine was racoon, and Ford was wearing his grandfather’s buffalo coat.  Good, practical garb for February.   We never considered any implications.

So we burst into the heat of the gallery space and there before us stood Jack, whom we knew, and the great man himself. The great Anishinaabe artist, sometimes known as the Picasso of the North, Norval Morrisseau.  Or as he signed his paintings and called himself. Copper Thunderbird.  Long haired, and bearded with a clear gaze and knowing face.  You could feel his greatness. He was very still. We gathered ourselves up and approached with hand’s extended to give and receive a traditional hand shake.  “Mr. Morrisseau, we can’t tell you how honored and happy we are to meet you,  and we are so grateful that….” He held up his hand in a stop gesture. Looked right at us, and said “wait a minute, I’m talking to your coat.”  We paused.  He waited for another moment, then he closed his eyes for a moment, and then finally said, “ O.K. I’m pleased to meet you. I’m here. So what is it that you ask of me. We looked over at Jack who just smiled and looked away.  There was nothing left to do but lay it out as plainly and directly as possible so we did so in about a three minute rap leaving out many of the details and just portraying to the best of our abilities our passion and devotion to the story, and our desire to produce it for a large public.  We got to “and so, that’s about it in a nutshell but we imagine that you may have a lot of questions.” Long silence.  He just looked at us.  We began to feel he was looking through us.  We all stood there in silence for what seemed another eternity, when suddenly he said brightly “ O.K. I’ll do it.

That was it.  No questions. No comments. No reassurances. Jack stepped in and said “that’s wonderful Norval, I’ll take you over to see the studio.  We’ll let you fellows know when the paintings are finished. We thanked them both, and left wondering “what the hell just happened.”

Ago installation of
Man changing into Thunderbird

And that was the last I ever heard from or saw Norval Morrisseau or Jack Pollack.  Jack died not long afterwards, and the “thunderbird project’, although innocent of any wrong doing got caught up in a very large scandal that wiped out many departments and projects of Ontario Place.  You might remember it from the papers.  It was a big deal.  People went to jail.  But for us it was just sad that the project died on the table,  and there was nothing to do but move on to other projects.

About four years later I picked up a copy of MacLean’s and low and behold,  there are on the cover is a photograph of the six panels by Norval Morriseau  entitled “Man changing into a Thunderbird”  It was on the cover because it had sold to the Esso oil collection for some huge amount of money.  A few years after that, I walked into the Art gallery of Ontario, turned a corner and there they were in the flesh.  Magnificent. I sat  down and looked at them in awe. I was incredibly moved.  Not only did he do what he said he would do, but in doing so he had created a masterpiece.  I can only hope that Jack lived long enough to see their completion.  When I think back I am truly grateful for my brief, but brilliant moment with Norval Morrisseau, and it makes me feel good to have been even a tiny part of the story of the creation of such a magnificent and important work of art. I never did figure out what he was saying to my coat.

panel six of
Man changing into Thunderbird

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You can pay anything for anything these days.

here’s a really old picture of me.

It’s 4:30 pm April 20, 2018, and I am declaring it spring.  I just had to run out to my friends place on the edge of town to deliver a painting I had cleaned for them, and when I got out of the car, I thought,  “Hallelujah. at last, it’s spring.  What a long wait it has been for us here in south-west Ontario this year.  But it’s like being beaten over the head with a two by four, it feels so good once it’s over. I point this out to say it took a lot of will power to reject the offer of a beer and sitting on the porch for a spell for me to write this,  but I met a guy at the market last week who pointed out he noticed I was getting a bit irregular in writing every Friday as I was until recently, and he gently encouraged me to get with it.  It doesn’t take much to make me feel guilty apparently.  But what does this have to do with economics you ask.  Well nothing, but the arrival of spring could not go without comment.

What got me to thinking about economics this week is a new pair of blue jeans I bought at Costco.   I buy clothes only when necessary which at my age is rarely.  I’ve got a lot of clothes and not many occasions when I need to dress up,  plus I am not much of a shopper.  Anyway, seventeen bucks.  I got a really nicely made jeans of quality fabric that fit me and look good for less than the price of a coffee and a snack at Starbucks. I also had the occasion that day to be in the Bay and I saw some designer jeans for about $240.  I didn’t like the fancy stitching on the back pockets but I suppose it was there so people knew you hadn’t bought your jeans at Costco for seventeen bucks, and that’s fine with me. I’m not going to diss anybody for wanting to make a statement with their clothes, if that’s what makes you feel better.  It just doesn’t do anything for me.  I also know that if I looked around I could probably find a pair of jeans for $5, but if you want them to last you’re better off to spend a little more.   My point is you can spend $15 or you can spend $245, or more for a pair of men’s jeans. You can pay anything for anything these days

Next example.  We were at our daughter’s house and over breakfast she said to her husband “when you go out to get the groceries I would like you to go to a hardware store and get a new drip coffee maker.” This was the direct result of having to listen to me once more mutter under my breath when I tried to pour myself a cup of coffee and inevitably, no matter how hard you tried, the stupid spout of the carafe was so tiny that you ended up spilling all over the counter.  That, and the fact that it no longer had a lid and she doesn’t like the smell of coffee.  I find this hard to relate to because I love the smell of coffee, but I did agree with her that the spilling thing was a pain in the ass.  Of course it is not in my nature to replace anything that still works so I objected. I would have put up with that stupid carafe until the thing died a natural death.   Also, the fact is that neither of them drink coffee so the coffee maker is just there for us or other coffee drinking guests so is rarely used.  But she showed great determination so I headed out with my son in law, figuring that I would jump in at the last minute and buy the device as a hostess gift. As it turns out he wouldn’t let me do this but I digress. We went first to the local Loblaws for the groceries on our list, and low and behold, there in the middle isle was a very nice little coffee maker on sale for $22.   Amazing.  It has a spout that pours, a lid, a cleanable filter so you don’t have to  buy and dispose the paper filters, and I can tell it makes a much better cup of coffee than the old one.  I think I may have learned something from the experience. Spending $22 to not have to wipe up spilled coffee is a good move.  When I got home and looked at the Canadian Tire catalogue I noticed you can spend anywhere from $12 to about $350 for a drip coffee maker.  You can pay anything, for anything these days.

This seems to be the case for most items these days thanks to diverse world economics, and the modernization of manufacturing, and I think it’s a pretty good thing overall.   The frugal or poor can buy pretty good things for not much money, and the wealthy have an ever increasing selection to choose from.  However, I think it also makes people suspicious of their understanding of the monetary value of things.

This has always been an issue that antique and art dealers have had to deal with.  When you are asking $350 for a  100 year old rocking chair, there is no price in a catalogue to refer to.  There is just your knowledge of antiquity and markets which the buyer either believes in or not.  I believe that a lot of established, knowledgeable dealers do a good and fair job of pricing, but it is also the case with the way the markets are now that you see prices all over the place.  Recently, a painting by a folk artist that I represented for years sold at auction for $870.  I sold that painting in my shop for $495, and I know of other auctions were similar paintings by the same artist have sold for less than $100.

I once overheard a couple of old time dealers haggling over the price of a chair.  “Well I agree that it is a very nice chair in original paint and great condition but why is it priced at $600.” The other guy looked him strait in the face and said “because I paid $5 for it”.  Ha. They both laughed, and the questioning fellow knew that his negotiation technique was failing but you get the point.  You can pay anything, for anything these days. He may have only had to pay $5 but his knowledge of antiques made him realize it was worth much more. I think this is the basic appeal behind the business. It’s a treasure hunt.  That, and a love for the stuff.  You need that too, or you will never be able to make a go of it.

And don’t get me started on how this affects you when you are trying to do a decent job of appraising items for fair market value.  That’s a topic for another day. I’ve gone on long enough. It’s sunny on the porch and I am dying to go out there and have a beer.  I’m not a big beer drinker mind you.  Don’t touch the stuff all winter, and really don’t drink much in the summer, but on the first day of spring, who would deny me?  Happy spring everyone.

Fond Memories of attending the Aberfoyle Fall Antique Show with my Beau-Frere

It’s a beautiful last day of summer here in Port Dover with sunny skies and a temperature rising to 30 degrees this afternoon; and tomorrow being the first full day of fall promises to be the same.  A perfect day to attend the Aberfoyle Fall Antique show.  The last big out door show of the season.  Aberfoyle, near Guelph Ontario has been going for over 55 years as a Sunday market hosting 100+ quality dealers selling collectibles, folk art, furniture, and more. It is open every Sunday from the end of April to the end of October. Their spring and fall Saturday Special Shows welcome an added 90+ dealers to the market.  It runs from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. and like any  show if you want a swing at the good stuff you’ve got to be there early.

I did the spring and fall shows for years and always looked forward to strong sales, and an opportunity to buy some great items.  As a dealer you could arrive as early as you want, with many arriving the night before and camping over.  Being just a little over an hour’s drive from our place I always preferred the comfort of my own bed, but I would set the alarm at 4 and make sure I was on the field and unloaded by 6 am. This not only to catch the early dealer sales as the sun rises, but also to be there to follow the trucks as they come in.  There’s nothing quite like the thrill of sipping on a coffee in the last moments of darkness before sunrise, and shining your flash light on to a big, tied down load of antiques as it rolls slowly by you on its way to its spot.  If you see something you like you shout out for a price from the dealer who inevitably has his window rolled down in expectation.  “Just picked it in the valley.  She’s right as rain, and it’s yours for $300.”  O.K. it’s sold, and I’ll be by later to pick it up and pay you.  Many pieces were sold this way so you had to be on your toes.

In the year 2000 Jeanine’s brother Gerard, and his wife came to visit us for three weeks in the fall. A retired engineer, Gerard dabbles in buying and selling antiques and has become a dedicated collector of French Dinky toys. When we are in France we go to the shows together and he is basically a jump on board kind of guy, so I asked him if he wanted to get up at four in the morning and go with me to participate in the Aberfoyle fall show.  No question. You bet. So on Friday we loaded the truck, made our lunches and went to bed at nine.  Four a.m. Grab a coffee, get in the truck and we are off.

Gerard pulling off the “little helper” photo trick

Gerard at times can be a serious guy, and generally he is a quiet, intelligent and thoughtful sort, but on a run like this he is a riot.  Light-hearted, mischievous, and a lot of fun.  I always see a bit of Bill Murray in him in spite of the different cultural backgrounds.  He likes to claim that his English is “pretty good” but in fact his English is about like my Spanish, almost nonexistent.   On this morning it didn’t stop him from approaching everyone in his Broken English and applying a hilarious attempt at a sales pitch.  “Yes, look here this beautiful dresser back.  It’s lovely for you, no?  etc.  You get the idea.  Some people would really lighten up and get into it when they realized he was a visiting Frenchman, and some would look helplessly over at me with a “what is going on?” sort of glance.  We were a good team actually.  When things got busy he started to complete sales after asking me if an offer was acceptable.  We had a sort of good cop, bad cop thing happening.  “she’s a nice lady boss, can’t she have it for $100.” He pretended I was the boss and he worked for me. He really fell into the part. The day passed quickly.  When the  afternoon lull came Gerard took off to comb the field for dinky toys.  Although he found several, I think he only found one or two from France and I don’t think he bought either, having better examples at home.

me, at Aberfoyle on that sunny day in 2000

As four in the afternoon rolled around and we loaded up the van to go home, as it is with all the outdoor shows a full, long day in the sun takes it tole, and we were a couple of pretty exhausted campers.  But the thing I remember is that we were happy.  It’s funny how seeing an event through foreign eyes can make it new and exciting again.  It was like that, and it will remain in my memory as a very happy and special day together with my beau-frere.

This hits my consciousness today because I recently had a friend recover a lot of old photographs from a crashed computer and there amongst them were the pictures of Gerard’s last visit here in the year 2000.  Topping that is the fact that he is arriving with his wife next Friday for another three week visit.  It’s too bad it’s one week too late to go the Aberfoyle show together to look for Dinky toys, but I’m sure we’ll have lots of other kinds of fun.

Gerard, ready and willing to serve you.

Our Encounter with the Golden Dog

Jeanine’s interest in, and knowledge of French pottery grew over the years as she bought and sold it at the shows and on e-bay.   She was mostly dealing in Quimper, as that was a hot ticket item at that time, but she was interested in all the pottery producing regions of France.

In our Quebec travels  she learned of a French pottery that was made specifically for the Quebec market with Quebec themes , marked on the bottom – C A.  It was quite possibly brought over for the 300th anniversary of Quebec in 1908, and most likely made by Alcide Chaumeil who operated out of Paris, but the jury is still out.  Many pieces include crests and mottos such as “Je me Souviens”, and some even have representations of the “Golden Dog” which is a very popular image in Quebec.

The golden dog is an image of a yellow dog lying down with a bone in it’s paws. The verse under the picture is as follows  “Je Suis un chien qui ronge lo.  En le roneant je prend mon repos. Un tems viendra qui n’est ps venu, que je mordray qui m’aura mordu.”  In English, “I am a dog who chews the bone.  While chewing I take my rest. A time will come which is not yet come, when I will bite the one who has bitten me.”

You can see the original plaque today over the main door of the Quebec General Post Office.  It had been moved there when it’s original residence was torn down. This was the 1736 residence of a  Dr. Roussell.  There are plenty of theories, the most popular being that it is likely referring to disputes and threats of revenge between the doctor and certain town officials, but you can see why it has a certain resonance with all Quebecers. In fact the original statue of the golden dog, circa 1650,  resides in Penzenas in southern France on the garden gate of a M. Delbousquet’s estate. It turns out Roussell originally came from this area, and probably he duplicated it as best he could recall as a simple remembrance of his native land.  This might explain why the words on the Canadian plaque are somewhat different than the original. It is most likely is a case of poor memory.

The factory also produced decorative items featuring emblems of the royal chateaus of the Loire valley for the tourist trade, and busts of royal figures, etc.

Years passed and in spite of our constant search, we found only a couple of C A pieces, and they were not of the Quebec theme.  We started to think that we would only see them in pictures.  Then one day we got a lead from a fellow dealer.  He knew of a lady in Kingston who had several pieces of the Quebec themed CA pottery she wanted to sell, and he was only interested in her Canadiana.  Great lead.  As it happened we would be going through Kingston in a couple of weeks, on our way to do the Eastman Quebec show, and wouldn’t it be great to turn up at one of Quebec’s premier shows with some extremely rare Quebec themed pottery. 

We made the call, and the very gracious lady on the other end of the line said she would be happy to accommodate us.  She sounded interesting. Her name was “Bunny”.  We arrived at her place on time and went straight into the dining room where, sure enough, the table was covered with several pieces of C A pottery.  Large serving bowls and plates with emblems and crests, salad servers, and there among them a plate with the famous “Golden Dog”.  There was also a nice little selection of Quimper and other French pottery, but of course our eyes were stuck on the golden dog.  “So Bunny it works best if you can just tell us if you have a figure in mind, and we will see if we can agree.”  Bunny thought for a couple of minutes and explained that she had bought most of the pieces years ago for not much money, but that she watches the Antiques Road Show so she knows these things have gone up, and then she hit Jeanine with what she thought was a big figure.  Jeanine knew she was low because she was unaware of the extra value of the rare pieces so she “talked her up” by $500.   Bunny was delighted, and we were happy because we would do well, and hadn’t stolen from her.  We went on to sell the entire collection within 15 minutes of the show opening to a collector who was over the top happy to have it.  Happy ending all around.

some of the C A pottery we brought to the Eastman, Quebec show

Fond remembrances of participating in L’ Exposition et Vente d’Antiquités d’Eastman

In the late nineties, it was common knowledge that the two finest country antique shows in Quebec were the North Hatley show held in July, and The Eastman show which ran in late September.  The two towns are situated about 30 kms apart in the beautiful Eastern townships region,  and so you would think that many of the same people would attend both shows, but the reality is these shows reflect the “two solitudes” of Quebec, with the North Hatley show being attended mostly by local, English-speaking home and cottage owners, while Eastman is predominantly attended by local Francophones.   In those days at least, not many of the English dealers who participated in North Hatley would consider doing Eastman. They believed that unless you were recognizably French Quebecois with good language skills you would be overlooked.  We heard this over and over for a few years before we decided to test the theory.  I get by fairly well with my high school French, and of course Jeanine being from France, speaks the language beautifully.  The thing is although neither of us were Quebecois,  we determined that we could overcome this by just being welcoming, open, and good natured.  We also liked the town and would go through from time to time to visit a good shop there,  Antiquities Rosalie.  A family place where we often found good folk art and early smalls. 

Antiquities Rosalie

We knew also that the mayor there,  Mr. Pierre Riverin was one of the biggest collectors of Quebec folk art in the country.  He had “made” our show in North Hatley the previous year and suggested that we come to Eastman.   So we contacted the show promoters and were happy when they welcomed us to come, and gave us a space in the main salon which was in the basement of the church at that time.  This original space only held 15 dealers and as this was 1999 it was the first year that the show had been expanded to a second salon in a “Golden Years” club a couple of blocks away, bringing the total to 30 dealers.  Of course people checked out both locations.

Unloading through the back door into the basement we definitely felt like the “new kids’ at school, but everyone was friendly and helpful and it didn’t take long to set up and feel quite at home.   We discovered that Tom Devolpe,  a dealer friend of ours from Montreal was doing the show as well, and we were staying at the same motel so we suggested that after setting up he come to our room for a glass of wine and a snack before going to the dealer welcome night, being held that evening in the restaurant of the same motel.  What a nice idea to have all the dealers get together for dinner before the show.  Dealers love to be fed. 

Tom DeVolpe and me having a glass on another occasion

We stopped in a local depanneur, or convenience store to pick up a bottle of red and some cheese and bread to share with Tom in the room.  This is one of the wonderful things about this region.  Even the smallest local stores have a good selection of wine and cheese, not to mention pates.  We bought a great baguette, and a soft ripened cow cheese from France  called Chaource which we had never encountered but which immediately became one of our favorites.  I remember that it was 40% off because it was quite ripe, but this of course made it even more delicious.  We should have had to pay more because it was perfect.  It could have been that we were just really hungry from setting up and skipping lunch, but that snack of fresh baguette, Chaource, and a few olives  with Tom in the motel room remains one of my favorite all time eating experiences. 

I recall we were a little tipsy walking over to the restaurant for our 7 p.m. seating.  When we arrived we were taken directly upstairs to a private room just large enough to hold the 60 or so people participating in the show. We were all assigned a table and presented with the menu, and a program. A program of all things.  We sat next to our old friend Alan Chauvette who owned a pickers barn near Victoriaville.  It was his first year as well. 

The meal was excellent, and surprisingly we still had a bit of appetite after all that bread and cheese.  The place was soon hopping, and quite noisy with all those ramped up dealers.   Then came desert, and along with it a few friendly greetings and encouragements from the promoters, followed by a sing along.  Yes. I didn’t see that one coming. There in the program were the words and tune to follow for three or four special antique dealers songs.  Everybody now, let’s sing,  “Nous sommes les Antiquaires”  set to the tune  of  “Les Miserable “ or some such thing.  I forget exactly but it was hilarious, and good natured, and friendly, and everybody sang along. 

This was followed by the announcement of who had won the “best booth” award which was a prize of a free ad in a local trade magazine were you could announce your honor I suppose.   Being newbies we had no expectation of winning, and it was no surprise when a local couple won who not only had a beautifully set up booth, but also wore (get this) period costumes.  I looked over to Alan, and said “ah that’s it Alan, next year, –  Costumes!”  We just about fell out of chairs.  The festivities and merriment continued well into the night, but we soon made our good-nights and left to get a good night’s sleep. 

The show was great. People were friendly and interested, and sales were brisk.   Contrary to the fears of our fellow Anglophone dealers we were made to feel most welcome and accepted.  We went back for another four or five years until we changed policy and only did shows close to home.  It’s still going on today but has been moved to a larger facility “La Grillade” where there are 50 dealers in one space.  Well worth a trip to this region, especially in the fall. 

us setting up in Eastman

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.”

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.