Over 40 years! Practically an adult lifetime. That’s how long my wife and I have searched for and gradually accumulated a home full of Canadian antiques and folk art. Now, both of us are in our early 70s. My partner would have likely let the bulk of the collection go years ago. Joan is a decidedly “less is more” person, the polar opposite of my “more is more” way of thinking.
When all of this started in 1980, we had recently met. Going to a country auction outside of Ottawa seemed like a unique outing for a young couple.
On that day, both of us stood in a crowd in the village of Finch as an auctioneer sold dozens of items from the back porch of a 100 year old little wooden frame house. When the “smalls” were sold, he moved on to the furniture spread out on the lawn including two century-old, rough pine cupboards that had spent the last 50 years gathering dust in the back of the garage. A woman bought both of them for $650 each. A local antique dealer, who soon would become a good friend of ours, was the underbidder.
Up until the auction, my interest in the past had been restricted to studying family history. My interest in genealogy and antiques merged on a cold November day when I tracked down the location of my maternal ancestral home in an even tinier village called Throoptown, which today has been reduced to a tight bend on a rural highway back of Brockville, Ont.
The search for the home was piqued when I saw a photograph of my maternal grandmother, as a teenager, standing on the lawn in front of a log home built in the 1820s. The town newspaper, the Prescott Journal, had run the photograph and a short story about my ancestors in the mid-1950s. My mother had a faded copy of the article that mentioned the current owner of the home and I was able to find the owner and the original location of the log house.
On that blustery day, we parked by the side of the road and walked onto the property where the building once stood. It was nothing but a rough, weed-filled couple of acres where a sharp wind ensured that this would be a short visit. We were a hundred feet from the car when Joan looked down and pointed out a pottery shard partially buried in the earth. I reached down pulled it out and turned the piece over. On the front, incised in the clay, was the name “Gallagher and McCauley” a 19th-century merchant in Prescott. (Having the business name stamped on the front of stoneware was a common method of advertising in 19th-century Ontario.)
We quickly noticed other pieces strewn about and, on a whim, collected all the shards, put them in a box and stored them in the car. Later that day, we left the box with my Mother who is a lover of any type of puzzle. It was a week later when she called to say it was ready. What had been 30 or 40 dirty pieces of clay in a box was now a, largely complete, majestic six-gallon butter churn!
That fragmented churn started my life as an antique collector.
From then on, Saturdays were largely devoted to attending auctions in the Ottawa Valley. We slowly developed an interest in country furniture and accessories still showing original paint. It was a thrilling time for new collectors.
Not content with auctions, I even became a “picker,” travelling the countryside and knocking on doors of old farms asking the owners if they might have any antiques they’d like to sell. Many of them did and I frequently filled the back of my Ford pickup with cupboards, tables, chairs and many other 19th-century items. It seemed I couldn’t get enough. Or at least, I couldn’t get enough of the “hunt” for antiques.
Recently, while visiting an Ottawa auction house. The auctioneer asked me if I would be interested in writing the catalogue for their next major auction of Canadian antiques and folk art. I agreed and did so. Once that sale ended, I began to think about auctioning off our collection.
I spent many hours writing the catalogue for our sale. Each item was described in detail including the condition and the dimension and it forced me to look more closely at our collection. It was time-consuming but we now have a digital catalogue.
We didn’t sell everything in the auction – there are several pieces we use or admire on a daily basis. This includes a magnificent painting by Nova Scotia folk artist Joe Norris, a blanket chest and chimney cupboard both sporting original paint; and two wood carvings by the Quebec master Wilfrid Richard.
It was difficult to see our collection go, watching many of the pieces that were important to us head out to other collectors across Canada and perhaps even beyond. But we hope they enjoy owning them as much as we did. The big butter churn from Prescott, however, is still with us. That’s a piece of family history!
Shaun Markey lives in Ottawa.