Art

Bringing back the past—at today’s prices

JULIANNE LABRECHE March 21 1977
Art

Bringing back the past—at today’s prices

JULIANNE LABRECHE March 21 1977

Bringing back the past—at today’s prices

Art

It was a particularly Canadian irony that James Hooper, an English civil servant in the early 1900s, could bicycle about to British antique and curio shops and amass a collection of rare native artifacts from Canada unsurpassed by any at home. When Hooper died in 1971, he left his relatives crippling inheritance taxes and the international collectors’ market a treasure trove of 1780-1900 Canadian aboriginal artifacts. Last November, two ethnologists from the National Museum of Man in Ottawa flew to an auction sale at Christie’s in London to compete with a multitude of dealers, museum curators and wealthy private collectors for the Canadian part of the Hooper collection. “The atmosphere was tremendously tense,” recalls Denis Alsford, one of the Canadian bidders. “I must have lost 10 pounds in three hours.” When the hammer finally fell, Alsford had bought 95 of the 122 Canadian pieces at a cost of $275,000.

In January, the Hooper purchases arrived in Ottawa, along with two other major acquisitions recently repatriated from outside the country: the Walsh collection from the United States, comprising 236 religious artifacts from the Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibway peoples (including tape recordings, films and an unpublished manuscript); and from Britain, for $59,500 at auction, a 135-year-old Micmac ceremonial costume of a chiefs regalia, with ceremonial belts, a stone-headed tomahawk and headdress.

The purchases (and 10 others in the past four years) were financed by the Emergency Purchase Fund of the Museum of Man. In all, the federal government has spent $2.2 million in the past 15 years buying back bits of the Canadian heritage. Despite the cost, each collection has been a bargain considering the skyrocketing prices for Indian artifacts. “The profit margin is remarkable, but that isn’t the reason we bought the stuff,” says Dr. William E. Taylor Jr., director of the museum.

The reason is that, until this acquisition policy, Canada had very little aboriginal art of its own. Many native artifacts dating back before 1850 were destroyed or buried with the Indian dead. Early pioneers, preoccupied with the task of staying alive, had little inclination to gather curios. Instead, it was left to the 18th-century tourists-missionaries, fur traders, explorers and military men—to bring artifacts home with them to Europe to show off as tokens of the “savages.” The European well-to-do had their Cabinets of Curiosities, where these artifacts remained intact and usually in pristine condition. The Micmac ceremonial costume, for example, was kept in a plastic bag in an English home until sold.

To ensure that the losses of the past are not repeated, the federal government last year passed Bill C-33, preventing the sale of Canadian artifacts outside the country until the National Museum of Man has had a chance to bid for them. Meanwhile, the three collections just purchased will be returned later this year to their rightful resting grounds on long-term loans—the Micmac collection going to the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax, the Walsh to the Glenbow-Alberta Institute in Calgary and the Hooper collection to various museums across the country.

But though visitors to the museums and government officials may be happy, some grumbles, as ever, remain. “It was a sacrilege to take these objects away,” complains Harry W. Daniels, president of the Native Council of Canada, “and it’s a sacrilege to bring them back, because they are not being returned to their rightful owners.” JULIANNE LABRECHE