The scandal of our lost art treasures
While our museums were hoving Chinese and Greek antiquities foreign eollectors practically swept this country hare of irreplaceable native relics and pioneer art. And the plunder still goes on, almost unheeded and unchecked
FRED BODS WORTH
A piano-sized crateful of Indian paintings by Canada’s pre-Confederation frontier artist, Paul Kane, was moved out of a Winnipeg attic a year ago and shipped across the border to join the private collection of a Texas oil millionaire. Canadian museum men who had striven for years to keep this national treasure in Canada shook their heads sadly when the news reached them. It w'as an old and familiar story. Once again Canadians had bid too little or too late and another priceless gem of Canadiana w'as irretrievably lost from Canada —as countless others had been lost before.
For two hundred years such treasures of Canadian art and history have been pouring unnoticed out of our country into the museums and private collections of the United States and Europe. They have included not only historical treasures of our own pioneer era, but also wast quantities of primitive
Indian and Eskimo art—irreplaceable examples of the now forgotten drafts of our first Canadians.
“All the Indian and Eskimo collections in Canada put together would not equal the Canadian collection in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington alone,” says Dr. Theodore Heinrich, director of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
The list of our lost historical treasures is an appalling one:
The astrolabe, a mapping instrument, lost by Samuel de Champlain on his first exploration of the Canadian interior, is now a prized possession of the New York Historical Society Museum. Canada could have had it at one time, but wasn’t interested.
The world's best Canadian Eskimo collection is in the museum at Copenhagen, Denmark.
Perhaps the finest collection of primitive Indian mate-
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The scandal of our lost art treasures continued
“We have lost the cream of our historical materials Now, to study Canadian artifacts, our ethnologists
to collectors from other lands, tnust travel outside Canada”
rials from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region is in the Museum of Man, Paris.
The Detroit Institute of Art has a collection of French Canadiana (church sculpture, silver and pioneer furniture) much choicer and comprehensive than anything in Canada, including French Canada.
New York's Museum of the American Indian alone has seventy superb examples of a much-sought type of abstract, wooden, Eskimo mask; in all Canada there are fewer than a dozen comparable specimens.
Probably the most beautiful and most coveted of all examples of Canadian aboriginal art are the polished, ebony-like carvings in argillite, a black slate, by the Haida tribe of the Pacific coast. The necessary stone is found only in a single quarry on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Before commercialization corrupted it into a mass production of ashtrays and cribbage boards, Haida carving was ranked by many authorities as the world’s finest primitive art. But the world’s biggest Haida argillite collection is a privately owned one in Florida, its 527 specimens probably outranking all Canadian collections combined.
The art’s earliest and most primitive period, prior to the 1830s, is represented in Canada by only one specimen — a pipe in the Hudson’s Bay Company museum in Winnipeg. But there are scores of specimens dating back to that period — in the Paris Museum of Man, the Peabody Museum of Massachusetts and the U. S. National Museum in Washington.
And the list could go on and on. Canada has some major collections, of course, especially those of its two leading museums—the National Museum in Ottawa and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; but we have lost the cream of our historical materials to collectors from other lands. This is most gallingly true of our primitive Indian and Eskimo handicrafts. Canada has been bled so dry of the more unique forms of its aboriginal art that Canadian ethnologists in their research must frequently go outside Canada to find good specimens of the study material they need.
Why do we find ourselves today so short-changed in the art and antiquities of our own history and native cultures?
In many cases it has been because Canadian museums, chronically short of funds, have not been able to meet the fast-rising prices that our own materials can demand on the world s antiquities market. But the major cause was simply disinterest and neglect at the time thirty years or more ago when these materials could still be picked up.
"We just missed the boat, that’s all,” one Canadian anthropologist said bitterly. “When these things were still to be found in Canada, our museum men were chasing all over the world after Greek, Egyptian and Chinese antiquities and ignoring the artistic treasures we had right here at home.
“Meanwhile collectors from other countries, especially the United States, were overrunning Canada and carting our heritage away by the boxcar load.”
It wasn’t entirely the fault of the museums, for they had to take their cue from government and public attitudes current at the time. Because of a colonial inferiority complex, we regarded Old World antiquities as great art, but
the products of our own native
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The scandal of our lost art treasures
“There were times when authorities deliberately destroyed many Indian art objects as pagan junk”
culture we looked upon as trash. Thus funds were often made available for Old World materials and expeditions, when there was no money for collecting right at home. This produced some strange anomalies. Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. for example, built up the finest Chinese collection anywhere outside China, but there are a dozen better Iroquois Indian collections — even though large quantities of Iroquois material were available at that time on reserves less than a hundred miles from Toronto.
There were times, in fact, when the Canadian government and missionary societies practiced a deliberate policy of destroying native art objects, regarding them as pagan junk obstructing the spread of Christianity. Early in the present century, the RCMP raided Iroquois long-houses on reserves in southern Ontario and sent garbage scows up the coast from Vancouver to gather such things as totem poles and ritualistic masks for destruction. Canadian museum men believe that much of this material, nowworth hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaked out to U. S. collections before it was destroyed. Totem poles, our most unique and dramatic Indian art form, were condemned by missionaries and with church encouragement were often chopped down and used as firewood by their Indian owners. Since most of these art expressions have ritualistic purposes, their production in anything but a commercialized form is still discouraged by church and government.
Today we are beginning to acquire a new awareness of the important place these native arts occupy in the artistic and spiritual wealth of Canada. But the modern Canadian museum representative, instead of ferreting out his materials in the field, living with natives, wearing jeans and lumberjack boots, must now do his collecting in a business suit, dickering across the polished desks of dealers, private collectors and museums outside Canada.
Many countries, unlike Canada, have laws prohibiting the removal of national
treasures. But Canadian museum officials do not agree on whether such a law is desirable. Those who oppose it say it might prompt other countries to pass laws that w-ould deprive Canadian museums of the chance to build up foreign collections.
"I favor the free flow of materials between countries,” says Dr. Heinrich, of the Royal Ontario Museum. "We have been losing materials to other countries, but they have also been losing to us, and this free exchange is what w-e want. We’ll take our chances.” But other authorities would like to see at least enough control to prevent the loss of really unique objects.
In any case, we are now paying through the nose for our years of indifference, because the antiquity business has become big business. A good Pacific coast mask, which might have been had for one hundred dollars ten years ago. now, when obtainable at all. commands several thousand dollars. The National Museum in Ottawa recently brought back to Canada the Pacific coast collection of a British architect. Sir Alfred Bossom; its cost was reported to be $47,500. And the Glenbow Foundation of Calgary recently bought at an undisclosed price a Haida argillite collection which was assembled by a Victoria dealer, Charles Smith, only after an intensive search of Britain and Europe.
On a recent tour of several U. S. collections and museums, I found a tendency among some dealers and collectors there to regard it as a joke that Canada remained disinterested in its own antiquities for so long, while foreign collectors were grabbing them up.
Charles Eberstadt, of the New York firm which sold the Winnipeg Paul Kane paintings, said: “Canada had years to do something about that collection. It had a very high value, no one in Canada was willing apparently to pay its value, so we had to find a buyer somewhere else.”
Kane crossed Canada in the 1840s, sketching Indians, their villages, fur trading posts and pioneer scenes. His
work has more historic than artistic value, for he paid meticulous care to detail and was more reporter than artist. It is an almost-photographic record of Canada’s pre-railway western frontier. Much of his work is preserved in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Manitoba Museum, but this one big collection remained in the possession of a grandson in Winnipeg. It consisted of about two hundred and fifty paintings and preliminary sketches, but its historic value was enhanced tremendously because it also included Kane’s handwritten descriptions for completing the unfinished sketches. The collection w-as offered over a period of years to a number of Canadian museums and art galleries, but the price asked was two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and no Canadian institution could raise that sum. Finally the Eberstadts of New York, dealers in rare books and art who had had their eye on the collection for forty years, took on the assignment of selling it, and it was soon sold to oil millionaire Lutcher Stark, of Orange, Texas.
"It didn’t need selling, it sold itself,” Eberstadt commented.
“It was a great tragedy to see it leave Canada,” says curator Ken Kidd of the Royal Ontario Museum. “We tried for years to ensure that it w-ould be kept in Canada. Kane’s paintings are the sole record we have for that early period of the Canadian west, whereas several artists did that sort of thing for western United States.”
"It’s a shame,” says Professor George Swinton of the Winnipeg Art School, “but no one is to blame but th^ Canadian people.”
Champlain’s lost astrolabe, now resting in a place of honor just inside the front door of the New York Historical Society Museum, had a similar story. For thirty years after its discovery it remained in Canada, ignored and unpublicized. When a U. S. collector finally acquired it for a few dollars and offered it back to Canada at the same price, the Canadian government was not interested. Today no amount of money could buy it.
The astrolabe, an instrument used for determining latitude before invention of the sextant, was found in 1867 on the shore of Green Lake near Pembroke, Ont., a few miles south of the Ottawa River, by a boy cultivating a field. It is of French type, inscribed “1603.” and careful historical sleuthing has identified it almost certainly as an astrolabe lost by Champlain on his first exploration of the Ottawa in 1613.
There is little information on what
was done with the astrolabe for the first thirty years after its discovery in 1867, although by 1872 it was accepted as Champlain’s. It was brought to the attention of federal officials in Ottawa, but no one attached much value to it. Around the turn of the century, Samuel V. Hoffman, a wealthy New Yorker, heard about it while summering in the Adirondacks. Hoffman, a collector of old navigating instruments, came to Canada, recognized it as a rare find and bought it. Then he offered it to the Canadian government for the same price he paid for it, feeling that Canada should have first opportunity of preserving it. But he apparently found no interest in Canada. On Hoffman’s death in 1942 the instrument was bequeathed to the New York Historical Society Museum, which has several other valuable pieces of Canadiana. It was described shortly afterward in the society's bulletin and then, at this late stage, there were several requests from Canadian associations for its return to Canada. But its new owners have no intention now of parting with it.
Dr. Robert W. G. Vail, director of the NYHS museum, told me recently: “We are interested in Champlain too, you know. He explored New York state. You lost your chance to have the astrolabe when you turned it down. You should have been smarter.”
Municipal officials at Pembroke, near where it was originally found, recently took photographs and measurements to make a replica of the astrolabe for their local museum. The real thing, alas, is in New York to stay.
For sheer quantity, Canada’s greatest loss has been from its treasure-chest of aboriginal arts and crafts.
“Canada had an unbelievable wealth of primitive art,” says Dr. Edmund Carpenter, University of Toronto anthropologist. “Our big land mass produced a wide variety of native tribes who grew up isolated from each other and thus developed many distinct and individualistic cultures. Many of these Canadian tribes remained isolated from us until a much later date than elsewhere on the continent, and this preserved their arts and primitive ways of life.”
Canada's wealth of primitive art attracted foreign collectors early, their collecting activities reaching a peak in the 1920s when Canada’s few museums were either disinterested or lacked funds to do much collecting of their own. Few of these foreign collectors were scientists; most were wealthy amateurs—curio hunters who collected Indian art with the devotion that others of their economic bracket bestowed on old masters.
The most successful of them all was a strapping, six-foot-three, three-hundredand-fifty-pounder named George Heye.
Member of a wealthy New York family. Heye decided as a young man that he would devote his life to collecting Indian materials. This he did with phenomenal success by means of equally phenomenal spending, and when his own money finally ran out, he carried on with funds wheedled from wealthy friends. He created the Museum of the American Indian and when he died two years ago at eiahty-two he left five to six million specimens, easily the world’s biggest and choicest collection of western hemisphere aboriginal material.
Heye started out by concentrating his collecting in Central and South America, but he soon discovered and fell in love with primitive Canadian material, and switched his attentions here. He was a will-o’-the-wisp character, always turning up unexpectedly where rare antiquities were to be had.
The Heye collection represents six hundred and thirty-five tribes from the Arctic to South America's Cape Horn, and Canadian scientists who have examined it estimate that it is one third to one half Canadian. It includes countless Canadian rarities that are non-existent or only thinly represented in collections within Canada.
Started with a Navajo shirt
For Heye, it all started after he graduated as an engineer and went to Arizona in 1897 to supervise a railway-building job. He had to hire Navajo Indian laborers and in an Indian village one evening he saw a squaw chewing on the seams of her husband’s deerskin shirt and asked her what she was doing. She was killing lice, she explained. Heye was so fascinated by it, he bought the shirt, lice and all. “That shirt was the start,” he recounted in later life. “Naturally, when I had a shirt, I wanted moccasins and everything that went with it. Then the collecting bug seized me and I was lost.”
Not satisfied with what he could accomplish alone, Heye paid others to collect for him. The relics poured in, overflowed his home and he rented a warehouse.
In 1917 Heye built the Museum of the American Indian at 155th Street and Broadway, in upper Manhattan. Fourstoried, with massive, ornate pillars, it cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Now Heye began hiring a scientific staff.
He had discovered that in Canada you didn't have to dig for relics, that in the north, tribes were still producing and using the arts and handicraft materials of their primitive traditions.
For years following World War I Heye and his collectors came to Canada annually. Heye was one of the first wellfinanced collectors to search out Pacific coast totems, masks and wood and slate carvings. He also had a special interest in the Iroquois, but his staff combed all Canada—some of them going to Arctic regions so remote that because of limited transportation facilities it took them two years to get their material back to New York.
“What treasures the Heye collection has!” Dr. Carpenter of Toronto says. “If it could be brought to Canada and studied here it would revolutionize our ideas of Canadian Indian and Eskimo art.”
One of its Canadian rarities is a perfectly preserved dog-hair blanket, obtained in Victoria in 1925. It represents a form of weaving apparently practiced only by the Salish tribe of southern British Columbia. Captain Vancouver and
other explorers described these blankets as common and recorded that a small, white, densely haired breed of dog was kept to provide the fleece. But when Europeans made permanent contact with the Salish fifty years later the fleece dogs were extinct and that form of weaving no longer practiced. Officials of the Heye museum in New York claim theirs is the best of six known specimens. Three of the others are in U. S. museums, one is in the Provincial Museum at Victoria and another is believed to be still privately owned in British Columbia.
Next to his Pacific coast material, Heye was proudest of his wampum belt collection. He accumulated more than fifty, the largest such collection in existence, and about half came from Canada. Much sought by museums, most of such belts consist of thousands of minute shell beads woven on threads of sinew or vegetable fiber. They were used by Indians to confirm important alliances and treaties, or to record in symbolic form a tribe’s history, the color designs woven into them taking the place of writing. They are rare because Indians usually refused to
part with them at any price and because they are highly perishable unless carefully handled.
One of Heye’s wampum belts belonged to Joseph Brant, the Mohawk chief who fought beside the British in the American Revolution. This belt commemorated the treaty between Brant and the British under which the Mohawks came to Canada after the revolution and settled near Brantford, in southern Ontario.
Several other belts also came from the reserve near Brantford, but this was one case where Heye was not the first collec-
tor involved. He first visited Brantford about fifty years ago and was chagrined to learn that another collector had already acquired the reserve’s finest wampum belts and ceremonial masks through bribery. The chiefs didn't know the man's name, but Heye suspected it was T. R. Roddy, an antiquities dealer from New York. Fuming with anger over being beaten to the treasures, Heye hustled back to New York to find his suspicions were correct. He looked over Roddy’s Brantford loot, offered a whopping but unrecorded price and bought everything. Among the items was a mask that had been owned and used ceremonially by Chief Joseph Brant. It's the oldest mask now owned by the Museum of the American Indian, for Brant died in 1807.
One other wampum belt in Heye's New York collection has a sacred place in Canada’s history and its removal from Canada has long been deplored. It is a belt given to the Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, by the Hurons to mark their acceptance of Christianity. Containing close to five thousand blue and white beads, it is one of the largest and most beautiful known. In its intricate design there is a cross, representing Christianity, and a figure with arms raised in supplication, representing the missionary Brébeuf. Brébeuf is believed to have had it in his possession when he was martyred by the Iroquois in 1649.
Relics by the carload
With Indian relics and art pouring into New York. Heye’s museum was overflowing within a few years of its completion. "I remember the stuff coming in, sometimes two railway express cars at a time,” one of his curators, Charles Turbyfill, told me. “Dr. Heye and I often worked all night cataloguing to keep up with it.”
Other U. S. museums were eyeing his collection covetously, but to all their wooing suggestions that he let them exhibit his overflow material Heye replied disdainfully: “Why should 1 join someone else and make him my boss?” In 1925 he put up a large, three-story building in the Bronx to hold the overflow. The depression slowed him down but didn’t stop him. Hou'ever, by the time it ended, the Heye heyday was past. He suffered a stroke in 1954 and remained a semiinvalid until his death in 1957.
The Heye organization, now with six scientists instead of seventeen, still collects Canadian material and the Bronx “annex,” currently being enlarged, contains some of Canada’s rarest historic materials. These can be seen only by appointment and only by scholars with a legitimate purpose for being there. When 1 sought out the building recently, the veteran Bronx taxi-driver who drove me there hadn't even known such a place existed.
In his search for Canadian materials, Heye had much more competition from other Americans than he did from collectors in Canada. One of his craftiest competitors was an elusive “Colonel Pearsall" whose identity remained a tantalizing mystery for thirty years. Many times Heye or one of his men went out to investigate a new discovery or a collection for sale only to learn that the mysterious Colonel Pearsall had beaten them to it, made a quick deal and disappeared with all or at least the best specimens.
Then, early in the 1930s at a relic auction in New York city, a Heye curator was repeatedly outbid by an unknown using the name “Mr. Purcell.” The Heye man accosted him: “Are you the Colonel Pearsall?" He was, and the Pearsall secret was out.
1. Leigh Pearsall, of West11-to-do member of the -n Exchange who came te ucular to almost daily when he wti. \ collecting trips. Pearsal!
Iivssive, pillared, threç-story
bai h Westfield, which he had
bony se his collection. A shy,
pubi ing bachelor, he regarded
his cos a strictly personal hobby
and i gt;wed it to anyone. Few
people . w it existed. Amid a few
simple ; gs he kept a chaos of
totem p, askets, drums, beaded
clothing, , xes and cigar-store Indians. To tlT ding over his bed he had
painstakingly wired four hundred thousand flint arrowheads and blades. Garish Indian blankets served as rugs on the floor.
Pearsall, now eighty-five, is retired in Florida. His collection is regarded as the largest Indian collection assembled by one man and includes the world’s largest and choicest assemblage of Haida slate carvings.
Another U. S. collector of Canadian Indian material was the late Donald 0. Boudeman, whose family owned much of the land that became downtown Kalamazoo, Mich. Following the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1915, the Egyptian government couldn’t afford to ship its archeological exhibit back to Egypt, so put it up for sale. Boudeman arrived home from the fair, proud owner of an Egyptian mummy. His father refused to have it in the house. Boudeman sneaked it in and hid it in the attic, but it was soon discovered and presented to the Kalamazoo museum. Despite this inauspicious beginning, Boudeman embarked on a lifetime of relic-collecting. “He loved that mummy to the day he died,” I was told by Alexis Praus, the museum director.
Boudeman took little scholarly interest in his material but had an obsession to own rare antiquities of any kind. He w'ouid buy up whole collections just to get two or three pieces he wanted.
Recently 1 talked to his widow, who said her husband was intrigued by Canadian materials. “I never knew half the time where he was going when he went on collecting trips,” she recounted, “but I know he made many trips to Canada. But I think a lot of the Canadian stuff he bought from an estate in Illinois—a man named Payne. Payne was like my husband, his house wouldn’t hold any more, but he kept on collecting and just left it unpacked in rented boxcars on a siding beside a factory he owned. It sat there for years. That’s where my husband found a lot of his good Canadian relics —locked up in those boxcars after Mr. Payne died.”
The best of this Canadian material— a rare Haida ceremonial axe, Eskimo bowds carved from whale vertebras, ivory and jade adzes—v ere bought recently by Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.
But most of Canada's lost historical treasures will not be coming back at any price. The odd private collection like the Boudeman one still becomes available from time to time, but most such material has now found its way into foreign institutions from which no amount of money will ever pry it.
I remember vividly the parting remark of a curator at New' York’s Museum of the American Indian. He was taking me to the door and we had paused at a large case of w'est-coast masks and delicate figurines of polished slate. “No matter how many spanking new museums you build in Canada,” he said, “you’ll never find any more material like that to put in them." -fc