How to look for the real thing at a fair price — before it’s all gone

GERALD ANGLIN February 9 1963


How to look for the real thing at a fair price — before it’s all gone

GERALD ANGLIN February 9 1963

How to look for the real thing at a fair price — before it’s all gone


EARLY CANADIANA is furniture that was made in Canada during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ignored or discarded as junk during the first half of the twentieth, and is now so highly prized by dealers and collectors that a particularly fine piece is worth six thousand dollars. Genuine Early C'anadiana is this year's highest fashion for decorating a room or an entire house, and leaves you the choice of going about it in two ways. You can buy good or excellent pieces from a dealer at good or extravagant prices. Or you can prowl the rural backroads to find good (and occasionally excellent) pieces that you can buy for a small amount of money and refinish with a great amount of effort. So many other people are doing the same thing that you will have to be wary: forgers are beginning to turn out bogus copies of everything from Ontario dry sinks worth seventy-five dollars to Quebec armoires worth forty times as much. The traffic in authentic C'anadiana is as heavy now as it will ever get. More than a hundred new dealers have set up shop in the last eight years. Five years from now there will probably be almost no authentic Early C'anadiana left to sell.

The stinging irony of this sudden and acute demand for these reminders of our own past is that by 1967. the proudest anniversary of Canadian nationhood, most of the C'anadiana that is left in circulation will be for sale in the United States to Americans. Museum buyers and collectors from the U. S. have been buying choice Canadian antiques for thirty years. But in 1963 the American buyers are more often wholesalers

who move in with big trucks and bigger bankrolls. and outhustle Canadians for commodes and sap buckets, pine tables and dry sinks, cradles and arrowback chairs. In the past five years, says Robert Perkins, a Toronto dealer in Early Canadiana, four out of every five antiques that changed hands in Eastern Canada have gone to American dealers or collectors.

‘We need an embargo,” Perkins says. 1 have spoken to many collectors and museum directors who share his concern. With some heat, these men point out that Canada is not only losing a small but attractive part of its tradition piece by piece, but that the pieces themselves lose their “Canadian” stamp as soon as they cross the border. There is no appetite in the U. S. for Early Canadiana; there is a hungry demand for "American colonial” pieces or "genuine French imports” — and deliberately mislabeled Canadiana is helping supply the demand.

Short of the outright embargo urged by Perkins there is no practical way to stop the runoff of Canadiana to the U. S. because the American buyers beat us to it at the source. Such old handmade furniture as there is in the cities of the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario is usually recognized at its real worth by the families who own it. In the small rural towns and on the farmsteads, though, even a small amount of cash often looks better than a dark and bulky piece of old native pine. This is the source for professional antique hunters, or "pickers” as they’re called. The pickers make their richest hauls in the province of Quebec, where handmade furniture was built for almost two centuries by craftsmen brought to C anada as church carvers, or by local artisans those craftsmen later taught.

Three quarters of the irreplaceable pieces they carved and joined, some experts say, have already been destroyed — many of them burned as firewood. Farm families have thrown out barrel-back rockers to make room for chrome-and-plastic kitchen sets. Some Quebec churches have discarded magnificent hand-carved wooden Virgins tor tinted plaster casts. But the pickers still find prizes on the backroads of Quebec. For a look at how they work, and where the American buyers step in, the best place to go is ther village of Detoy in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

Defoy has about twelve adult male inhabitants, and every one of CONTINUED OVERLEAF


coNTiNUi t) them is an antique picker. They fan out over the entire settled area of the province, traveling by truck and combing the backroads farm by farm. Toward the end of each week — usually on Thursday — the pickers haul their pickings into Dcfoy. Dealers, predominantly American, drive in on the same day. Then, from early afternoon into the night and sometimes on to the early hours of the next morning, pickers and dealers bargain by what has been appropriately called "the slow auction." Pickers like to deliberate as long as possible over each offer, hoping another dealer will arrive with a better one and occasionally slipping away to telephone a dealer in Montreal or Bangor. Maine, who may have a special interest in a piece. A slow auction frequently ends with a show of temper, and when two men can't agree on who bought a piece first they sometimes settle the deal with their fists, bar more often than not the winner, either of the bidding or the fist-fighting, is an American. He loads his take in a truck and that is usually the last Canada sees of it. A Montreal dealer estimates that the Defoy pickers sell off $300,()()() worth of Early Canadian;! a year.

l ately, and for a variety of reasons. Canadians are fighting back for possession of their native antiques. Scott Symons, the twenty-nine-year-old curator of Canadian;! at the Royal Ontario Museum. is a scholarly collector with a little more money and much more knowledge than most, and a house full of prize specimens. Harry Porter is a young naval shipwright in Halifax who dropped into an antique shop with his wife and discovered they could buy old Nova Scotia pine furniture cheap and refinish it themselves. Now Porter has a houseful, too.

The chief appeal of most kinds of Early Canadiana is to the senses. "Canadian furniture is warm and beautiful, just like a wife," says Jean Eetarte, a French-Canadian television producer. "It is there waiting for you to come home to. and you can live with it all your life."

Next to beauty comes economy, except in the case of the highly prized and highly priced rare items. Another Montrealer, magazine editor Jean Dufresne, says he and his wife outfitted their small home completely with old Quebec pieces for twelve hundred dollars, which he considers cheap compared to "comfortable contemporary." What's more, he believes his antiques are bound to rise in value.

"Mind you. a lot of people forget to include the time and labor they put into refinishing the stuif." admits Dufresne. “We bought six diningroom chairs for five dollars each, but I worked forty-eight hours on one chair alone.”

I hese two French C anadians are typical of most of the new enthusiasts for old chattels: they are bright, young, married, and they get just as much pleasure from scraping down and refinishing the old furniture they buy as they do from owning it. But more than either, they enjoy tracking it down in the first place.

Competing with the professional pickers is becoming a kind of family sport. CBC'-TV announcer Bruce Marsh takes his wife and children

on regular weekend outings, attending auction sales on Ontario’s hack concessions. For six women in Sackville, N.B.. antiquing is a substitute for bridge; they go on joint foraging expeditions as far afield as the Sea Captain’s I.oft in St. Andrews, and Ten Mile House at Bedford, N.S. No neon-lit furniture store can vie for color, quaintness or cobwebs with antique shops like these and their counterparts across the country — in Quebec, The Flying Shuttle anti Le Vieux Temps, in Ontario, Green Shutters and Ye Olde Covered Bridge. Even West Vancouver has its Cottage Antiques, which reassembles Quebec pine pieces that have been knocked down and shipped across five provinces.

Dealers have seen Boston rockers hauled away inside Volkswagens and eight-foot deacon’s benches protruding from convertibles. For many of the more ardent collectors belong to the urbanite-sportscar set who but recently were mad about contemporary furniture. This suggests that another reason for the antique craze is a reaction against "modern living" and mass-production conformity, since no two pieces of Early Canadian furniture are exactly alike. Not long ago a Toronto restaurateur found himself at a party

where, it turned out, “I was the only guy who didn't own a dry sink. What is a dry sink anyway?” (A dry sink is a pioneer's w'ooden cabinet with a sunken top in which sat the family dishpan. Today dry sinks are usually filled with liquor bottles, records or plants.)

The appeal of household objects that have managed to survive a century of use is also described as a reaction to the insecurities of the atomic age. And there is testimony to another basic attraction. Albert Colucci, curator of Metro Toronto's Pioneer Village, says that “people are giving a lot more thought to the country in which they live. They are rediscovering their roots.”

Cynics like James Letheid of Collingwood, Ont., a designer of modern furniture, jeer at this phenomenon as “instant heritage.” They point to the parallel popularity of mass-produced “brandname colonial” furniture, which all the experts denounce as a mishmash of watered-down American colonial designs. “Antique-loving is contagious, not spontaneous,” says Jeanne Minhinnick of Upper Canada Village al Morrisburg, Ont.

Yet the real interest of many of these “young moderns” who have become fascinated with the relics of an earlier C anadian wav of life is too

evident to be dismissed. Refinishing an old chest bought at an auction sale got a psychiatrist interested in early paint-making, and sent him to a reference library for books on pioneer life. Building a week-end cabin got an advertising executive interested in local history and started him buying old county atlases as w'ell as country furniture.

Surprisingly often, what begins as an amateur interest in Canadiana ends as a full-time professional occupation. An interesting case is Bob Perkins of Toronto, a thirty-seven-year-old w'hose colored vests and rakish mustache give him a dashing resemblance to movie actor Keenan Wynn. Six years ago Perkins w'as an RCAF radar operator at St. Hubert. Que. One day, he and his wife bought a slatback chair, in the rough, for six dollars. He did such a professional job of refinishing it that the dealer offered him four dollars to do refinishing for the shop.

Perkins invested his earnings in more pieces of his own and soon the flight sergeant had the best-furnished married quarters on the station. A friend paid him twenty-two dollars for his sixdollar chair, and the next time Perkins and his wife went on leave to Toronto he thoughtfully loaded their station wagon with samples and went

calling on Ontario dealers. Soon he was operating as a picker, a short time later he quit the air force and today he operates a smart Yonge St. shop where he pays other people eighteen dollars for the refinishing jobs that he did for four.

That’s the way the Canadian antique business has been jumping between 1955 and this year, but Perkins glumly says there won’t be a single Toronto shop specializing in Early Canadiana by 1967 — "the stuff’s going to be all gone." One evidence of scarcity is that buyers must be more and more wary of fakery. In Ontario, this means fast cheap fakes of relatively low-priced items like dry sinks and deacons' benches. In Quebec, forgeries must be of a far superior order because the motive here is to cash in on the spiraling prices now commanded by genuine creations of rare beauty. These are almost impossible for anyone but a true expert to discover (one dealer bought a fake copy of a genuine item he already owned, from a Montreal shop which had copied the original when he left it in for restoration), because they are usually painstakingly fitted together from pieces of genuine but crumbling antiques. Even the cheaper fakes are made from genuinely old pine rescued from disintegrating

farm houses, hut these can usually be detected by the telltale marks of machine planing.

For people who want to pursue the pedigrees of Early Canadian pieces even further there is now a fast-growing list of books to turn to. Eight years ago it was hard to find authentic information; since then at least eight books on the subject have appeared and two large and definitive works are due for publication this spring. Antique enthusiasts can also see more and better public collections of what they themselves are looking for. Ontario communities alone have recently created or restored no fewer than sixty-one museums, historic houses and pioneer villages.

These public displays also help keep antique prices climbing. Twenty-five years ago a Toronto rare book dealer felt almost guilty charging a millionaire collector fifteen dollars for a twovolume set of ('anadian Scenery, better known as Bartlett’s prints. Last fall a junior civil servant paid a hundred and fifty dollars for a similar set.

A Quebec armoire or cupboard, with beautifully hand-carved doors of Louis XIII design, which brought five hundred dollars in 1956. might sell for three thousand dollars today — although less distinguished pieces w ill go for seven hundred dollars. In Ontario a butternut cupboard, which a dealer might have bought from a farmer for a dollar and a half in 1940 and then resold for thirty-five dollars, could today bring the farmer fifty dollars and the dealer three hundred and fifty.

Sonin Hood, of Montreal's Breitman’s shop, told me of a picker who bought a prize commode from a convent for two hundred dollars and resold it to an American dealer for four hundred dollars. The Yankee trader hauled it to Bangor. Maine, before Hood caught up with it and drove it triumphantly back to Canada in a snow storm, after parting with seven hundred dollars. He then turned it over to Montreal collector Dr. Herbert Schwarz in swap for another commode plus an unspecified amount of cash — and sold this second commode at Toronto’s Casa Loma antique show for (hold it) twenty-five hundred dollars.

Scott Symons, who is this winter presenting the Royal Ontario Museum’s first major Canadiana show, prophesies that the craze for Canadian antiques will build to a peak by 1967. He thinks it will level off in the letdown after the Confederation centenary celebrations.

Every dealer has a story about the wealthy man or woman who arrives, list in hand, to order one Louis XIII armoire with diamond-carved doors, one commode bombée, one twelve-foot refectory table at least a hundred and fifty years old — and also with the money to pay the whopping bill if the dealer can produce.

"These snobs will shove a thousand-dollar armoire into a room full of cold-steel furniture.’’ says Jean Lctarte. "It would make more sense if they framed the bill and hung it up to impress their friends."

Status symbols and furniture styles both change with space-age rapidity, but the possession of Early Canadian furniture and accessories seems to give its owners a more permanent kind of pleasure than I have ever heard of anybody getting from a steel tabic or even a thousanddollar bill. The spinning wheel may never replace the TV set, but it’s a safe bet the arrowback and the spindle bed arc here for another hundred years if anything is. ★