It started with a serendipitous lunch more than 60 years ago, and culminated this week with the unveiling of what’s being called a treasure of early works by the celebrated Northwest Coast artist Bill Reid, at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.
The lunch was at the UBC Faculty Club, in the early 1950s. Sydney Friedman, one of the founding members (along with his wife Constance Livingstone-Friedman) of the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia, was dining with artist B.C. Binning when Mr. Binning showed the doctor a medallion made by Mr. Reid.
It was a prize of some sort – a logging prize, Dr. Friedman, now 96, believes – and he thought it was lovely. He had never heard of Mr. Reid, who was then working as an announcer at CBC. He got Mr. Reid’s phone number from Mr. Binning, gave him a call, and commissioned a first piece in 1952, years before Mr. Reid would become a celebrated artist, with iconic works such as The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.
“At that time, really, he was still probably deciding whether he was going to be a CBC announcer or a Haida craftsperson,” says MOA curator Bill McLennan. “It was a really interesting time in his life.”
The Friedmans purchased several pieces of gold and silver jewellery, which Dr. Livingstone-Friedman would wear around town (the pieces Mr. Reid made for the Friedmans between 1952 and ’54 were stolen in a home robbery and never recovered). For more than 20 years, they were friends of the artist (who died in 1998), who liked to drop by unannounced for living-room chats.
“I was thinking about them both being surgeons, and so interested in the meticulous nature of their business, and seeing Bill’s meticulous nature and what he was crafting, there must have been a real affinity there,” Mr. McLennan says.
In June, 2011, Dr. Livingstone-Friedman died. She was 91. Her husband (for whom UBC’s Friedman Building is named) contacted the MOA: Would the museum be interested in coming around and seeing the works?
“Of course we did, and fell off our seats,” Mr. McLennan says. “It was like, holy smokes.”
He was particularly knocked out by a gold raven bracelet, with cut-out wings and feathers, made around 1955. Not only is it an exquisite masterwork that epitomizes Mr. Reid’s craft, Mr. McLennan says, but it has never been seen in public before – never displayed, never even photographed.
The donation to MOA includes 11 pieces of jewellery, made between 1954 and ’74, and valued at more than $500,000. (There is also a Reid print and a Northwest Coast bracelet by an unknown artist.)
“My wife cherished wearing these beautiful pieces by our friend Bill, and wanted the greater community to enjoy them,” Dr. Friedman said in a statement. “I am very proud to make this gift, because it honours one of Constance’s dearest wishes, and because it also reflects our deep history with UBC.”
The works have been installed in MOA’s Bill Reid Rotunda (which was famously robbed in 2008), all of them – silver and gold – in the same case.
“We didn’t split them up,” Mr. McLennan says. “They’re all together as a family, as they were.”