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Obituary

Bill Jamieson was a treasure-hunting rarity Add to ...

The apartment is a cabinet of curiosity. The entrance is ringed with warrior shields from New Guinea. The back room holds an executioner's electric chair. In the kitchen, a replica machine gun. Downstairs, the walls are covered with framed butterflies.

The owner of this one-bedroom, three-storey, 6,000-square-foot loft in Toronto also has a fondness for shrunken heads - he owns almost a dozen. During an evening tour of the space last winter, he grabs one from a case with his bare hands, placing it under the nose of a nearby young woman.

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"Do you smell that? That's sage!" he says.

We haven't fallen down a rabbit hole. It's just Bill Jamieson's home. A dealer in tribal art, he bought and sold bizarre, rare finds - until his cleaning lady found him earlier this month, on his 57th birthday, dead on his couch of a heart attack.

In the world of international tribal antiquities, only about 40 or 50 dealers are considered serious collectors. None of the others looked or acted quite like Jamieson did.

He was a long-haired, leather-clad, macabre-obsessed, anthropological rock star. His memorial on Tuesday evening looked like an event staged by Tim Burton - guests wearing fascinators, feathers, large hats and elaborate makeup were greeted at the entrance by a bust of Jamieson's face, lying atop a velvet pillow with a dripping red candle nearby. The service brought together both the art world's elite and a bizarre ragtag crew; guests included Royal Ontario Museum Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, the Explorers Club of Canada's former president Joseph Frey, and musicians, motorcyclists and tattoo artists.

In the 15 years that he was a dealer, Jamieson sold artifacts to the art world's biggest names - the ROM, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses - as well as to private clients such as Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger.

"Bill's mom once said to me at a party, 'I always knew he'd end up in jail, or become famous,'" says Jamieson's close friend Sheldon Jafine. "I guess she was right."

Given the broadcasting world's obsession with strange reality programming, it was fitting that someone put Jamieson on TV. Last year he began shooting a series for History Television. The show followed his modern-day Indiana Jones exploits, and it was written into his contract that he couldn't cut his hair. For now, the show remains unfinished, though Jamieson's fiancée Jessica Phillips is in talks to complete the episodes that Jamieson couldn't.

Jamieson's business, and the tribal art industry in general, had boomed in recent years. After surviving dips post-9/11 and during the recession, he was back to making million-dollar deals. Recently he sold a staff-god from the Cook Islands to a client of Sotheby's, on camera, for just over $1-million. Predicting that he'd be criticized by other dealers for selling to an auction house, he said in his office this spring: "The truth is, they have a client that will pay a price."

Tribal art collectors usually enter the market at the highest levels, looking for very rare and very expensive pieces. Few of those collectors are Canadian, and thus there are very few Canadian dealers.

"Off hand, I can't think of anyone," Dan Rahimi, vice-president of gallery development at the ROM, said when asked about dealers similar to Jamieson. "He has a niche, you know."

"At first, it's disbelief," Carlo Bella, director of New York's Pace Primitive gallery, said about working with Jamieson. "His approach and look are different. Because of that he goes to places where others don't, and he succeeds where other people wouldn't."

Jamieson wasn't born with the collecting bug. He traded baseball cards when he was young, but he didn't show any signs of the obsession that would develop later in life. Growing up, what was much more apparent was his business sense. He would mix up buckets of Freshie and sell it by the cup to parched golfers at a local Brampton course. On more ambitious days, he'd hitchhike to Mississauga and caddied for golfers there.

"I used to say he could sell ice to the Inuit," says his mother, Barbara Halligan.

Jamieson struggled through school and dropped out entirely when he was 14. After holding a number of sales jobs, he started his own basement waterproofing business, which he operated until he turned 40. He worked hard and played harder - women, booze and drugs were his main priorities. "I would stare at my ceiling and think, 'Is this all there is to life?'" he once said to an interviewer.

It took a drug overdose to snap him out of that rut. In 1995, while dining with friends in a Toronto restaurant, Jamieson took PCP - an intense hallucinogenic commonly known as angel dust.

"Everyone in the restaurant melted," Jamieson said. "I went somewhere I can't explain. I have been an entirely different person since."

He sold his business and, with a renewed zest for life, went to South America on the hunt for enlightenment through the psychedelic drug ayahuasca. "I became interested in everything, I wanted to know everything," he said. An attraction to the region's shrunken heads eventually led to his first deal.

At his memorial, Bert Schmitz told the crowd about a trip he took with Jamieson to Ecuador.

"We got off the plane, and Bill introduces me to a Shuar shaman named Tucupi," he said. "He was Bill's friend, of course - Bill had friends everywhere."

In 1999, Jamieson bought the abandoned Niagara Falls Museum after drinking opium tea. Inside lay his biggest find, a discovery that placed him in the international spotlight: the mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses I.

Going from hidden treasure to international research subject, Ramses I was eventually donated to Egypt's Luxor Musuem. In a PBS documentary about the mummy, its coffin is swarmed by paparazzi on the airport tarmac, as if it were a movie star.

Jamieson flew to Egypt for the repatriation, but said he felt marginalized by academics at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, who he felt discredited him and the museum by implying that the mummy was treated like a sideshow subject in Niagara.

The friction between Jamieson and the Carlos Museum is not uncommon in the antiquities industry. There's a schism between dealers and anthropologists: Dealers are entrepreneurs who sell expensive pieces of valuable art; anthropologists straddle the worlds of science and history - they usually believe that tribal goods should be preserved in museums, or left where they were found.

Jamieson wanted to bridge the divide. In 2003 he helped revive the Explorers Club of Canada, an academic group that works to preserve the exploration industry. He was on good terms with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

But legally, the line remains blurry between the two. Jamieson was convicted and fined for violating Migratory Birds Regulations in 2004 by attempting to sell a stuffed bird, an endangered Eskimo curlew, online through eBay.

"He was pushing the limits," says Bob Paterson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in cultural heritage and art legislation. "He was in a bit of a void. But private collecting is largely unregulated, and the items that he collected were old and no one knows the identity of the people who first owned them, in most cases."

Every day, Jamieson's e-mail was flooded with requests from people hoping he'd check out their family heirlooms. He offered a free consulting service because, "Hey, you never know."

For Jamieson, there was a buzz from treasure hunting. "We're always chasing stuff," he said, "because once you've bought and sold something, the buzz is over."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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