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.

Driving the Vatican to Montreal

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

we loved bringing something big to Bowmanville

When it comes to selling folk art, something you learn pretty quickly is that size matters.  In this case, small being better than large, because not many collectors have a large amount of space to dedicate to their interest, and so although they may be delighted to see a large piece, not many of them are going to take it home.  The exception being things like totem poles or other vertical forms that don’t take up too much floor space., or can go outdoors.  Even then it has to have a lot going for it, or you risk hauling the thing around from show to show like a giant albatross around your neck.  That being said, it’s good to have something  spectacular for a show like Bowmanville, where you focus on building a reputation as well as sales, and big and flashy gets them into your booth.  This is why on the rare occasion when I did find something large that made my heart skip, I found myself drifting from ”isn’t this an interesting thing. I’m so happy to have experienced it and now I have it to remember”, to “I wonder if I can Squeeze this thing into the truck and when I get home convince Jeanine it is a good idea.”  It’s a feeling recognized by elements of excitement and danger coming rapidly in equal amounts.

It was early spring and the hope brought on by new life and growth was thick in the air as I pulled in to Jean Deshaies or as he is known “Kojak’s”.   I was flying solo and with a full truck, so it was a last look in case of an interesting small or something worth putting aside for next time.  I could see that Kojak was excited when I walked in, and he jumped right up and hurried towards me, “ Phil, you’ve got to see what just came in. It’ll blow your mind”.  He brought me into his small front room where he kept his special things and there perched on a table in front of the window was a spectacular 7 foot long, 4’ tall, red and white, three tiered birdhouse in the form of a ship.  The name “Vatican” painted prominently on the bow.  Wow.  What a thing.  Double masted, with twin funnels spewing black smoke asthe French flag overlooked all from high above.  You could see that great care had gone into the creation.  Every piece was carved lovingly from wood or shaped from metal, and it was built to last.

The Vatican in Kojak's front room

The Vatican
in Kojak’s front room

It was made in the late 1940’s by two priests who taught and lived at the seminary near the town of Lobiniere, situated on the south shore of the St Lawrence river.   It took them over two years to make it, and then they mounted it outdoors under a sheltering roof where it served as the home for many birds over the next thirty years or so until the seminary closed.  By then the brothers had died, and it was bought by a local. Fortunately, he looked after it well, keeping it painted and maintained and under a roof as the brothers had, so when Kojak bought it, it was just a question of giving it a really good cleaning.  This was the state it arrived in hours before I pulled in.

It hit all my buttons, had great provenance, and was definitely top drawer folk art, but it was also a lot of money, and huge, not to mention massively heavy.  My mind kept telling me to “avoid” “just move away and nobody gets hurt” but when Jean told me he had already called a couple of Quebec city dealers, and they had not committed but would be coming to look at it, I started to panic.  Something about it spoke to me.   I’m not naturally inclined, but it felt almost Holy.   I wanted it, and I had to think fast. “Can I have a hold on it for 24 hours, and take a couple of pictures.  I’ve got a guy in mind.”  He hesitated.  “Well, I don’t want you shopping it around to everyone, but if you have somebody in mind I’ll give you until closing time tomorrow.”  Great.  That may be all I need.

As it happened this was a time when I was selling a lot of folk art to a new, high end interior décor and furniture shop setting up over two floors of a converted warehouse in an up-scale neighborhood in Montreal.  The owner, a Mr. Camelot, (how do you forget a name like Camelot), was very progressive and pushing hard to come up with the very best.  Today I would have phoned him and sent him the picture, but in the day, after he had expressed interest over the phone, there was nothing left to do but drive to Montreal and show him the pictures. The next morning at 8 am we met at the store and he quickly decided based on the two polaroids, and my description that he had to have it, and so it just became a matter of driving the two hours back to Kojak’s and fetching it.

I had to pile up the things I already had on my truck at Jean’s because the ship took up the entire box of the truck from front to back.  I roped it in place and started out for Montreal.   I can remember it as vividly as if it happened yesterday, cruising at 120 klm down Hwy 40 headed for Montreal when suddenly the sky turned black and a torrential summer rainfall let loose.  Looking in the rear view mirrors it looked like the Vatican was sailing her way through heavy seas.  I was concerned but she was built to take it and there was nothing to do but sail on.   As Mr. Camelot’s workers unloaded it and brought it up in the lift, I was thinking that although I was happy the ship had found it’s new dock, the only unfortunate part was that I would have loved to make it the center piece of our Bowmanville booth that year.  Still, a bird in the hand.   fullsizerender4

Something about seeing that ship in those rear view mirrors left a big mark on me, and a little while later I was messing around and found myself painting in a decorative old mirror frame I found, a rendering of the Vatican floating on a cloud off into a starry night  . It’s still hanging there on the wall over my left shoulder, and every once in a while I notice it and I think about the two priests staying up late, and using all their leisure time to create such a wonderful home for the little birds.

Ironically, about twenty years later, I walked into set up for the Bownmanville show and there it was. A Quebec dealer had brought it on consignment.  The Vatican was looking for a new dock.  It did not sell.  As I watched them load it back onto the truck for the trip home I said to myself, “that could be me.”vat2

Our times at The North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show

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a giant moose head that came along for the ride.

When, in about 1986 we decided to expand our show calendar beyond the weekly Toronto Harbourfront Market and the spring and fall Christie shows, we decided that we would like to include the North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show, held annually in early July in the beautiful Eastern Townships region of Quebec. Known as Canada’s oldest antique show, it also had and still has a deserved reputation for presenting top quality antique and folk art to an exclusive and appreciative clientele.  North Hatley is a picturesque charmer of a small town on the banks of Lake Massawippi, and a playground to the affluent and powerful of Montreal and surrounding areas. The show, put on by the local Recreational Society is held in the old curling club with about fifteen dealers set up where the ice would be, and another 6 or so set up in the onlooking lounge.  For the years we attended, until his death in 2007 it was run by the legendary Sam Pollock, who among many other things was the manager of the Montreal Canadians for 14 years, during which they won the Stanley Cup nine times.  As you can imagine, Sam ran a tight ship. Every year he, and his loyal fellow volunteers would do everything from planning and preparing, to set up, and everything else involved in running a top notch show right down to the  making of the delicious home-made egg salad sandwiches at the lunch bar. They may have been up in years, but those ladies knew their way around a good egg salad sandwich. northhat4

In those days, it was not easy to get invited to do the show.  We were lucky to have friends like Peter Baker and Gerry Marks who had been doing the show for years to recommend us.  The first year we had a tiny 10’ x 10’ booth wedged into a corner of the lounge area, which was mostly dedicated to book, pottery, and silver sellers, with the furniture dealers all being in the main room.  We didn’t mind because being an unknown in terms of results, the rent was cheaper and we came with a smaller truck. We focused mainly on folk art, which was what the promoters wanted from us because it was becoming increasingly popular with this crowd. It went very well, and we had a great time to boot.  Good sales, lovely people, and a stunning area to explore.

An interesting feature of the show is the gala Friday night opening.  From 6:30 to 9:00 on the Friday night a $30 ticket buys you first crack at the stuff, and all the delicious hors-d’oeuvres, and wine you want. Lovely young waiters and waitresses passing amongst the crowd with trays. The experienced dealers warned us that opening night it is packed, and it may seem that all they do is talk to each other, and glance over your stuff.  It is a big social event after all.  But not to despair because when they see something they like they are in a good and competitive mood to buy.  Also, they may go home and discuss it, and come back Saturday morning to buy.  It worked out pretty much just like that.  A few sales Friday night, then good sales all day Saturday, and even a few more on Sunday.

We kept the same booth for a couple of years and then moved to a bigger one in the same room when it became available. Then one year when I was doing the show by myself; I can’t remember when exactly, it must have been the late nineties, Sam came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking over a large room upstairs they had for the same price.  He pitched “You can spread out the art and make it like a gallery.  I think you can do well up there.”  I knew the space.  It was a big space, about 20’ x 30’ with two front facing windows which brought in a lot of natural light.  It must have been used for meetings.

my "gallery"  at the North Hatley show

my “gallery”
at the North Hatley show

“Well, yes Sam the space is great, but not to mention that everything has to go up and down the fire escape, I will be on my own up there, apart from the show. It might get pretty lonely”.  “Ah, but don’t forget Phil, that’s where the woman’s washroom is.  All the ladies will pass by eventually, and they’ll drag their husband’s up”.  I thought about it for a minute and decided he was probably right.  It just might work, and if it did the price was right. So I agreed, and started to haul everything up the steep fire escape that led directly to the room. A big task, but much easier than dragging everything through the inside.  It took the whole afternoon to set up, but in the end it looked like a gallery. I even had a table and chairs in front of the window where I could sit and do business, or read the paper in slow times. Not to mention eating egg salad sandwiches. So close. So tasty. So affordable.  I put up a little sign with an arrow pointing up at the base of the inside staircase announcing “Folk Art Upstairs”. I hoped that somebody might see it.

looking into my "gallery" from the hall

looking into my “gallery”
from the hall

6:30 arrived and at first I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake because I could hear the people coming in, chatting and having fun for a full thirty minutes before anyone showed their face.  But then it started.   The first lady poked her nose in, and was surprised to find me and my offerings.  Fortunately she was a folk art enthusiast and went directly to several pieces of carvers she recognized.   She bought three things right then and there, and I was off to the races.  It was out of the way, but when the folk art people found me, they really connected, and would not only buy, but go down and drag their friends up.   I met several people that year that became long -time friends and customers.  It was already a great show by Saturday at noon and then Pierre Riverin walked in.  I’d heard about the “collecting” mayor of the town of Eastman for several years but we had never crossed paths. We talked for over an hour, he bought several pieces, and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  It is a rare and precious moment when you find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff.   Even with all the effort of getting everything up and down those stairs, it was worth it many times over. I had a wonderful show and I was happy up there.  I repeated this for a few more years before the hauling up and down began to outweigh the benefit, so when a bigger booth on the main floor became available I grabbed it.

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

Over the years we got to know several of the Quebec dealers, designers, and collectors who frequent this unique annual show.  For a time many of us participating dealers would get together on Saturday night and enjoy the evening together at some wonderful local Inn or restaurant.  There are several to choose from.  Then through our friend Tom De Volpi, and our friends Jim and Ilona Fleming, we were invited to an annual Saturday night dealer’s dinner held at the nearby summer home of a lovely Montreal designer named Valery.  It was always a wonderful, warm get together, not to mention a delicious dinner; and we were grateful for her hospitality and the chance to spend some happy time with our fellows.

Eventually, as in all stories, the pages turn, and times change, and so it was that by 2008, (I remember it because, although still a good show, it just didn’t feel the same without Sam being there), along with slumping sales, we reached the point and age where we just couldn’t justify the ten hour drive to and from home, and all the work that doing the show entailed.  Mind you this was part of a larger retreat from doing shows altogether.  We truly don’t miss the work, but we do miss the people.  They were some very good times.

the "gang"  at Valerie and Henri's

the “gang”
at Valerie and Henri’s

Going further than Faux

green and orange "spool" table

It started innocently enough.  It was in the 80’s when we were either selling as found, or on occasion if the surface was bad, but the natural wood was good, we would strip and refinishing as was popular at the time.  One day we bought a small handmade side table made from empty thread spools and crate wood because it was charmingly made. However, it lacked a good surface.  The original white paint over the entire surface hadn’t developed a nice patina, and therefore could not be considered “shabby chic”.  We were going to sell it as is and let the new owner figure out what they wanted to do with it.

But, as it happened we were at coffee break in the workshop one fine winter morning when Jeanine silently looked over at the table for several minutes and then said, “I think I want to do a decorative paint job on that little table. I’ve got an idea for it”.  Jeanine is a talented visual artist in her own right, and had taught art at Beal Art in London, and St. Clair College, so great.  Go for it.  Knock yourself out.

Right after break she set to work by painting the entire table with leaf green oil paint. When that was dry she created a stencil of a leaf and proceeded to paint orange leaves radiating out from the center of the top, and in graceful arches on the lower shelf. Next she highlighted the edges in a buttery yellow and put a potato stamp texture of black on the background.  What followed was a time consuming task of detailing each spool in orange.  This took a while and a steady hand, but when she was finished the piece was transformed.  Finally, when it was thoroughly dry she took 0000 steel wool and gently burnished the oil paint surface to soften the look.   She signed and dated the paint job on the bottom, and we took it an outdoor show we were doing near Collingwood the following weekend.repaint3

It didn’t take long before it was noticed by a vibrant, and well- appointed middle aged woman who went into raptures about it’s “freshness”, and warmth of the design.  She loved it and bought it without hesitation, obviously pleased to be buying from the artist.  It quickly followed that she asked Jeanine if she would be willing to paint other pieces of furniture for her.  She had inherited some pieces from her parents that had sentimental value to her, but did not appeal to her aesthetically.  They were all quite typical turn of the century manufactured maple furniture. Well made, but not particularly interesting.  She explained that she was an interior designer, and wanted the pieces to be transformed into something that would fit in to a modern décor.  Some would go to the cottage. A few others to the house in the city.  She gave Jeanine carte blanche to do as she wish, and urged her to push the limits of her imagination.  Jeanine offered that she would be interested in “riffing” on traditional faux graining techniques, by using traditional tools and techniques, but shifting to a more vibrant palette, and freer organic designs.  An hourly rate was established and it was agreed that she would start on a typical two door, over two drawer sideboard.  But one that at least had quite a free style headboard and side pillars. repaint1We picked the piece up and took it home, and three weeks later we were dropping it off the back of our truck at her home in Toronto.  It was an almost psychedelic sunburst pattern of multi coloured sponge painting.  All free hand, and in a wide range of muted greens, and blues, with highlights in reds and yellows, as was discussed with the client beforehand, and after observing the room it was going into.  We loved the piece, but it was definitely a statement, and we were anxious as to how she would react.  A moment of anticipation as the shipping blanket comes off, and then big smiles all around.  She loves it.  She would have never imagined it, but she loves it.  We were off to the races.repaint2

What followed was several years of regular commissions from the same patron, who collected many pieces herself, and before long had friends and clients looking for something similar.  We never took any pieces of Jeanine’s work to shows, because she was as busy as she wanted to be with commissions, and antique shows of the time, generally frowned upon pieces that have been “repainted”, so we didn’t need the hassle.   She signed and dated all the work not only as recognition, but also to assure that the age of the paint was not misrepresented in the future.

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This rainbow table in vinegar paint is the last piece Jeanine painted, about the year 2000.  Looking over these photos I wish she would do more.

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Looking back at over twenty years at the Christie Antique Show

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine  in our booth, mid nineties

Me (looking really heavy), and Jeanine in our booth, mid nineties

The Christie Antique show is coming up on Saturday, September 10th at the Christie conservation area near Hamilton, Ontario.  It is Canada’s largest outdoor antique show and draws thousands of people to both the spring and fall shows.  It was started in 1988 by Jeff and Wendy Gadsden in partnership with John Forbes, and a few others investing.  I remember everyone getting excited about the prospect of a new outdoor show in the Golden Triangle area.  At the time the Flamborough Antique show held nearby, also in the spring and fall by promoter Bill Hogan was the only large outdoor show, and it was uncertain how this new show would stack up.  We liked the fact that it was a one-day show held on Saturday so we didn’t need to miss the Harbourfront market in Toronto on Sunday which was still going strong. Also, Christie is an hour away from our home so we didn’t have to factor in staying overnight at a motel.

From the beginning the Gadsden’s and Hogan ran a tight ship.  There was active vetting and anyone foolish enough to try to pass off a reproduction or junky piece would be certain to be brought to task and made to remove the offending item, or in some extreme cases be thrown out altogether from future shows.  Older folk art was o.k., but mass produced, contemporary folk art was not; especially if misrepresented.  I remember one spring show when Jeff made the dealer next to me return the money to a customer, and accept back an Aime Desmeulles horse that the gentleman had bought for a large sum because he was told it was old and rare. He was not happy when someone had told him the truth, and so he went to the promoter’s office to complain.  There was no tolerance for early packing, no matter what the weather conditions.   You could be sure that everything would be on display right up until closing time at five. Load in and load out was carefully supervised.   It was in every sense a well-run show and collectors and dealers alike loved it.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Something is amusing Jeanine.

Many dealers would come the night before to set up their tents, and then settle in for the night so they would be ready for the morning rush.  This continues to be the case.  You could not unpack your stock, so in the evening there was a fair amount of partying and card playing going on.  Not to mention a fair amount of subtle trading and purchasing; everyone being very careful not to be caught as this was forbidden. You were allowed to unpack starting at 6 a.m. and so those two hours before the field was open to the public at 8 was crucial.  Typically, you would do a lot of dealer business during this period quite often selling many of your nicer pieces as they came off the truck.  Clay Benson and others would race around buying, following up leads given to them on their walky-talkies by scouts also combing the fields.  The negotiation was accomplished quickly and when a deal was reached it would be completed later in the day when things had calmed down.  I loved to buy at the show but I would always stay in the booth during this critical period because I was most interested in selling, and the type of thing I buy was esoteric enough that it would still be there later on.   It felt great when on occasion you had sold enough to consider it a successful show before the public had even entered the field.  This was the hay day, and everyone was tuned up for it.

Like everyone else, we had our fans.  Early on, there was not a lot of folk art on the field so folk art collectors made our booth one of their first stops.  These “keeners” were also in a hurry to buy and move on, but many of them would circle back later for a visit.  Things were typically busy until about ten, when it would slow down enough that Jeanine could handle the flow, and I would take off for a couple of hours to comb the field, coming back about every twenty minutes to unload purchases, and check how things were going.  I could tell by the expression on Jeanine’s face as she saw me approached with my treasures if I had some “splaning” to do, as Ricky Ricardo used to say.  I loved it on the occasions when I would quickly sell again something she would flatly tell me that “you’ll be taking that piece to your grave with you”.  But then again she was often right, and we mostly agreed.  She would take her turn after lunch, and it was my turn to hold down the fort, and offer comments on her purchases.  We didn’t have any cell phones or walky-talkies at this point which was just as well.  There’s nothing worse in my opinion than trying to explain and convince another of the relative merits of a piece, talking on your phone in someone’s booth while they look expectantly on. It takes the fun out of it.

For the first several years we had a spot right in the middle of a row in broad sunlight.  It was awfully hot until we purchased a tent to provide shade and shelter.  As helpful and necessary as it was, the first twenty minutes in the morning setting up the wretched thing, and the last twenty minutes at the end of the day packing it, where my least favourite parts of the day. Some swearing was involved as you would inevitably at some point pinch your skin putting the stupid thing together. When Marjorie Larmond quit doing the show in the late nineties she was nice enough to bequeath her spot under a big shade tree to us.  Jeff went along with her wishes, and so after that we had a lovely spot at the back of the booth, in the shade to set up our picnic lunch.  These lunches started out innocently enough, but being French Jeanine kept upping the ante until it became quite a production with tablecloths, a range of excellent cheeses, beverages, etc.  Many friends got in on this, and it became a very pleasant way to spend the slow time after two, until it was time to start wrapping up the business and beginning to pack at five.  We tried to keep it subtle and behind the truck and we made sure that someone was always on duty up front should someone wish assistance. Still some people would give us some very odd looks.  This reminded me a bit of the shows in France where at mid-day, everyone sets the table, and puts out their lunches and bottles of wine and you carry on regardless.  The French have their priorities straight.chri4

We happen to agree with a no packing before show end policy so although we would have our boxes and packaging ready we would wait for the announcement that it was over and it was o.k. to start.  It usually would take a couple of hours at a leisurely pace to pack up and leave.  We were always exhausted, but most often happy and satisfied with our day.  There is a Chinese place we like called “the China King” going into Brantford where we would stop and eat before heading home.  I don’t think Chinese food ever tastes better than at the end of a long, arduous day which also provides the satisfaction of good visits, exciting purchases, and if lucky, lots of sales and a full wallet.

We did our last Christie in 2010 which as it happens is also the last year the Gadsden’s ran it.  Anyone who has attended regularly over the years will tell you Christie has changed dramatically, especially in these last few years.  To everything, turn, turn, turn; so let’s not get maudlin about it.  There’s still plenty of wonderful stuff turning up on the field, and many good dealers.  Look harder and filter out the stuff that grinds on your collector sensibilities.  You just might find something to cherish, and you’re likely to enjoy yourself.  Quite possibly snag a nice lunch.  We’ll see you there.chri2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and observations on the 2013 Bowmanville Antique Show

bow13shadThis is a picture of my booth at the 40th Edition of the Bowmanville Antique show. which was held Good Friday, March 29, and Saturday March 30th.  As you can see I went heavy on the folk art and light on furniture.  I love antique furniture, but I just don’t have the back for it anymore. If you want to see a slew of good pictures of the show please follow this link –  http://www.facebook.com/groups/126697675589/ to Adrian Tinline’s Canadiana Antiques facebook page.  If you are unfamiliar, this also serves to introduce you to this lively and informative forum.  Join, if you will.

This year Bowmanville was, as always a beautiful show, full of exceptional works of antique and folk art, and early handmade Canadian furniture and accessories.  All 24 exhibitors took special care to select and present their. best wares.  Many dealers put aside special pieces all year to present them here for the first time.

The show started humbly in 1973 when picker and collector extraordinaire Rob Lambert decided to invite the best dealers in the field of Canadiana to hold an annual spring show near his home in Bowmanville, Ontario.  In those early days dealers set up their offerings in their rooms at the Flying Dutchman hotel. When the starting bell rang, people would run (quite literally) from room to room to get ahead of their rivals, and purchase the treasures presented.  It was wild and hectic, with occasional  incidents of pushing and near fisticuffs. People were passionate about their collections back then.  It quickly gained the reputation of being “the” Canadiana show and it’s numbers and reputation grew from year to year.

Eventually the show moved to the G.B. Rickard Recreation Complex where it has continued to be held until present day.  For the past several years it has been expertly run  by Bill and Linda Dobson.  They have worked hard to maintain it’s tradition as a high quality, vetted show.  The vetting process is carried out before the show by a group of experts who go from booth to booth checking everything out for authenticity, quality, and accuracy of presentation.  Any repros, rebuilds, or items not meeting the criteria of the show are removed at this time.

I’ve been doing the show for about twenty years.  I’ve always been happy to do it, but I’ve also always fretted about doing well.  It all happens so fast. The bulk of the business is done within the first two hours of the show, People line up well ahead of time.  From time to time people even camp outside the door overnight to be first in line. With so many beautiful items competing for attention, you have to be ready to rumble when they come running through the door at  6 pm. Chances are that by eight o’clock you will have sold the bulk of what you are going to sell. You are on your feet and on your toes  selling, wrapping, and doing the math during those first two hours and then everyone clears out. By  9 pm you are either happy or concerned, but at least there is a good meal waiting for you.  Bill and Linda have always had wine and beer and food ready to bring out as the show closes, and for the last couple of years Mary Jo Field has been producing absolutely fabulous meals that in themselves are good enough reason to book the show.

Although many come to see the show on Saturday the atmosphere is considerably more relaxed. This is fine because  it allows you an opportunity to see the show, and chat with other dealers. Many of who I now see only once a year at this show. These chats often result in a few more sales or swaps.  Then it’s all over at 4, and within a couple of hours you’re packed and on your way home, either feeling great, or not so great, or disappointed.  It’s that kind of show.  Some people will always do well, and some people not so well.

I’d say that for the past couple of years, like everywhere else, sales have been slower, but there are positive signs too,  Prices are noticeably more reasonable, and interesting pieces, priced right do sell. It’s also great to see the show now includes three young dealers, Ben Lennox, Adrian Tinline, and Fairfield’s Antiques.  All had excellent booths, and added to the excitement with their enthusiasm and knowledge.  I also find it encouraging to see more young faces in the crowd, attendance figures are up over last year.

Here’s hoping that the Bowmanville show will continue to be a great place to see and buy the best in early Canadian antiques and folk art  for at least another forty years.