All the usual suspects

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, we spent every Sunday for much of the 1980’s attending the Toronto Harbourfront Antique market.  It was a very lively market in those days, and you could rely on hundreds of people to attend.  Most of them serious buyers looking for a special decorative object, or piece of antique furniture to decorate their homes, as was popular at the time.   Also, it was a time when several Toronto people had already bought and furnished their house in the city, and they were all going out into the hinterland and buying up the low priced rural properties which would become their country week-end homes.  For these in particular, they were looking for antique country furniture, most often in refinished pine, or similar.  For an antique dealer these were heady times.

So eventually, within this continuous flow of humanity you would soon learn to recognize the specialty collectors or  dealers who would arrive every Sunday to scan the market for their select products.  Some smaller Toronto dealers would set up to sell, and to advertise their shop but there were several more dealers who had established shops in the city, and they would come by to add to their stock.  You got to know these people as regular buyers, and you would get to know what they are after, and try to supply it.

One fellow would buy any refinished pine chest of drawers I would bring, and at a price close to what I would get from the public.  Another dealer only wanted original paint pieces, and he would be there every week as you pulled in, hopping alongside the truck and pointing at anything of interest with the same question, “how much for this”, followed by a “ yes, I’ll take it, hold it for me and I’ll be back to settle up.  He would then run off to follow the next truck in.  Generally there would be five or six of these alfa type dealers to deal with right off the top so it made for an exciting first hour.  Although you had to be on your toes especially when you brought in something really good, and there was a frenzy to determine who of the group was the first to commit. Get this wrong and people got offended. Guys would get pretty mad at each other over lost treasure.

Then as the day wore on many other dealers and collectors would make their way to your booth, most often looking for specific items.  There was the pen guy.  At some point he would slide up beside you and say quietly “got any pens for me?” If the answer was no he would just keep walking.  However, if you did have something it wasn’t a certainty that he would be interested.  He was after top end Parkers, etc, so once in a while I would come across something he liked, but for the most part I gave up after a half dozen failed attempts.  Still he appeared like clock-work every week.

Then there was the defrocked priest couple who would always turn up seeking Catholic items. Extraordinary looking guys with extravagant wardrobe and hair down to their asses.   As I was so often in Quebec, I usually did have something to show them.  They really knew their stuff and would explain to me the symbolism and meanings of the pieces. They bought only occasionally, and I always looked forward to the little theology lesson in the middle of the day.

Later in the morning, preferring to get up at a civilized hour, along would come MonsieurTaschereau , a possible candidate for anything spectacular I might have.  He had wonderful taste, and a highly respected shop in the Four Seasons tour.  A relatively small space, but full of good things.  He was very dry and came across as haughty at first, but when you got to know him he was down to earth, and a good guy.  When he bought something from me, no matter how small he would always ask me to deliver.  Then he would grab a ride so he didn’t have to take the transit back.  I didn’t mind because we always had interesting conversation on the way, and I loved looking at his shop.

Another in this category was a lady named Susan Miller who had a wicker shop on Mount Pleasant for years.  She was an institution with all the upper crust for their supply of white wicker furniture.  All the rage for your patios and sun rooms, and Susan could be relied on for the best, and the whitest.  No matter how good I would think the white paint finish was on a piece she would always say, “well, off course I will have to have it repainted”.    It was part of her negotiation technique, but just the beginning.  She was a lovely, refined lady always decked out in top end white and beige clothes with highly coiffed white hair adorned with a beige, wicker looking, basket-weave hair band. To top it off. It was her costume.  Susan was lovely, but she was tough as nails. She had a special technique. For instance, if she liked a chair, but didn’t like the price she would simply sit in it, carry on pleasant conversation, ask for the occasional glass of water, and wait until you couldn’t stand it any longer and would say “O.K. you win Susan.  It’s yours for what you asked, and of course I am happy to deliver it today.  And of course she would always grab a ride.  Again, I really didn’t mind because the conversation was good.  I got to know a lot about Susan. How she took all her meals at Fran’s. How she couldn’t stand the smell of garlic and wouldn’t touch the stuff.  It is what she disliked most about taking the transit.  How she met her husband when she was a hairdresser at Eaton’s. Ah, so that’s the reason for the perfect hair all those years later.  How her husband was an accomplished accountant and had written the Canadian tax code.  Unfortunately he had died young, so she used some of her capital to set up the wicker store, and as it turned out she was really good at it, and enjoyed it, so it became her life until she retired (I think) at about age 70.

Being such divergent people I have to say we got along very well, and over the many trips up Mount Pleasant to deliver her and her wicker I got to know her.  “One day we were riding along when she looked over and said “You know Phil I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve worked hard, and you want to know what I can tell you about life?”  Pregnant pause while I imagined she was going to go on about family, or good friends or the like, but then she said “In the end Phil, you know who your best friend will be? “  Please tell me.  She looked at me squarely and said, “a couple of bucks in your pocket”.  When you get older and need some help, that’s what it comes down to.  A couple of bucks in your pocket.”   It surprised me, and puzzled me for a moment, but I could see from her expression that she was right.harbour1

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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

The manufactured “folk art” of Pierre et Claire Inc.

the cover of our mail order brochure

the cover of our mail order brochure

Last Saturday at Christie in anticipation of this article, I looked to see how many animals I could find which were manufactured by this small Quebec company.  Although it was too hot to cover the entire field, I did manage about ½ of it, and in that area I found five.  I noted that we as Old Church Trading had painted three of the five.  This gives you an idea of the scope of production of this company.

Rene Beaudoin was one of the original, and possibly the most successful of the Quebec pickers which started up in the 1960’s in the Victoriaville region of Quebec.  There were several small farms in the region, and everyone seemed inclined to keep all the old furniture and accessories as it was replaced in the barns, basements, and attics on the property.  The popularization of antiques brought in part by Expo 67 signaled the start of the antique picking industry, and Rene, although reportedly not able to read or write, had a keen understanding of business and quickly became the main man, hiring several men to go out and knock on doors, and they fetched all and everything available, bringing it back daily to his large farm near Defoy.  After becoming enormously successful in the antique trade, in 1978 he decided to create a small manufacturing business, employing some of the wonderfully talented wood workers of the region to create high quality reproductions of antiques, and copies of wood carvings which were prevalent in the area.  In 1983 his daughter Claire, who is married to Pierre Trudel, bought the company from Rene, and thus Pierre et Claire Inc. was formed.

unfinished order arriving from Pierre et Claire

unfinished order arriving from Pierre et Claire

The company exists to this day at its original location of 1197 Rue Principale, St. Anne Du Sault (Defoy), Quebec, and continues to manufacture reproductions of antiques and animal carvings with about five full time employees.  When we discovered them back in the early 80’s we decided to set up a mail order business for the animals which we called Old Church Trading.  We advertised in Harrowsmith magazine in Canada, and Country Home magazine in the States.  We offered many different animals both in the sanded, unfinished state that we bought them in, and varnished or painted which we did ourselves. We sold hundreds of them both through mail order, and at the Harbourfront market in Toronto, which we attended every Sunday.  At the time it seemed everyone wanted a nice pine, carved goose or swan to sit on their harvest table or cupboard.

various cow models

various cow models

We would stop in every other week or so and fill out our orders, going through the bins of carvings and picking out the nicest ducks, geese, swans, loons, roosters, and other animals.  We were always interested to see what new models they would come up with.  Penguins, buffalo, bears etc. would appear.  The prices were always reasonable.  I recall the standard size goose would cost about $16 each.  Although there was some variation in quality, (sometimes they would have large knots, or be slightly malformed) overall they were very nicely done.  Initially, all the models were cut out from solid pine, but sometimes these pieces would crack with time, especially if they were not adequately finished, so eventually they started to offer laminated models at a slightly higher price.  This solved the cracking problem, but didn’t look as nice and natural in varnish.  Of course they were the best ones to buy for painting.

inside the factory. Note the pile of geese in the background

inside the factory. Note the pile of geese in the background

As far as I know this small company was, and is the only North American company to “manufacture” folk art type carvings.   Although by the fact that they are manufactured and mass produced they cannot truly be considered as folk art.  And yet you cannot really call them reproductions either because in many cases they are an original design.  For folk art collectors it is important to know of these carvings, and be able to spot them.   They are fine for decoration when bought at the right price, but should not be confused with “real” folk art, which are items of individual expression, and not mass produced.  Although we must also acknowledge that many folk artists, Maud Lewis springs to mind, would repeat favored images over and over again, it is quite different than banging out 100’s of identical ducks using templates and modern wood working tools.   Ironically, I think their market has been effected when the Chinese started to reproduce copies of their work.  I’ve seen lots of these too.

the very popular rooster, and hen with our paint jobs

the very popular rooster, and hen with our paint jobs

note how this is modeled after the Black Horse Beer display

note how this is modeled after the Black Horse Beer display

Pierre et Claire continue to be in business, and have a web site at www.pierreetclaireinc.com, but it is in French only, and does not show many of their available carvings.

Our painted versions of Pierre et Claire animals

Our painted versions of Pierre et Claire animals

The Toronto Harbourfront Market in its Heyday

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Our Harbourfront offerings circa 1983

Every Sunday morning from the early 80’s to the late 90’s, the alarm would go off at our house at 4 a.m. The truck would be packed and the load tied down the day before, the lunch would be made and ready in the fridge, and our cloths would be set out. We would hop out of bed, get dressed, grab a coffee and get underway. An hour and a half later we would be pulling in to the Toronto Harbourfront Market, ready for another day of buying and selling. Rain or shine, we would make the journey, full of hope that the furniture and small items that we were offering would meet the approval of someone there.
When we started in the early 80’s the market would be held on about an acre of parkland near the terminal building, with the 100 or so vendors being set up in parking lots and green spaces right alongside the water. In the winter we would go across the road and inside an old one story warehouse. These were the glory days. It’s hard to imagine now just how “hot” the market was. The boomers in general had done well enough that their Toronto houses were paid for and they were madly buying up all the charming little farms and cottages within about a three-hour drive of Toronto. These rural places demanded antiques of course, being sympathetic to the rural environment, and a refreshing contrast to the city digs.

A loaded truck ready to go.

A loaded truck ready to go.

So in these days there was a large number of motivated collectors and dealers arriving about 6 a.m. vying to pick the best of what was being offered as it arrived. It was a thrill to arrive in our open pick-up truck, and have people run along beside us, racing up to the window to ask the price of the pieces they could see tied to the load. Often they would just say “yes, I’ll take it” even before it was unloaded, because they knew the competition was right behind them. It would happen occasionally that by the time we arrived at our spot, most of the furniture which could be seen was sold. Sometimes we had completely sold out by noon, but would still have to stay until five as to not create a disruption. We had our regular dealers whom we got to know would buy certain items without hesitation if the price was reasonable. You had to pay close attention. Sometimes two or three dealers would be right there as a piece was coming off and you had to be very conscious of who asked about the piece first, and who was next in line. It was easy with two people selling, under this kind of pressure to even sell the same piece to two different people. Tempers would flare. It was not always easy to sort out, and have everyone be happy with the results. It didn’t happen often, but it was difficult to avoid altogether.
Then by the mid-nineties, the Harbourfront development had other plans for the summertime parkland, and the wintertime warehouse, and so they built a brand new market at 390 Queen’s Quay W. As so often is the case, these new quarters under new management meant higher rents and lower sales. It continued to deteriorate until it was not profitable for us by the late nineties, and it eventually closed in early 2003.
Our friend, and avid collector Rod Brook used to say that he wanted to produce a book which presented exclusively all the incredible pieces that had been bought by collectors at the Harbourfront market during those glory years. Sadly, he died before he could accomplish this, but I’ll bet if someone took up the cause it would be an amazing document. For a while there it felt like it would never end, but then like everything else in life, it did.

harbour3-1

loading the truck for another Harbourfront Sunday.