Skip to main content

Inuit kayaks from the Canadian Western Arctic are rare. Until recently, only five were known to exist. Then Robert Fung, the chairman of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp., located a sixth -- one he hopes to put on public display.

But the rare historic piece is owned by the Vatican, and it isn't known whether the Roman Catholic Church would be willing to give it up.

Mr. Fung's discovery capped a remarkable odyssey that began with an overheard conversation in Toronto, took a detour to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, captured the imagination of the Royal Ontario Museum and finally ended in Rome.

Neither Mr. Fung nor the ROM formally asked to borrow the kayak or other Canadian artifacts that form part of the Vatican's vast collection of artworks and cultural artifacts.

But every so often, the Vatican allows its treasures and curiosities to be put on display outside Rome, so the idea of a Toronto exhibit is not out of the question.

Mr. Fung, 66, knows the kayak exists because he and two ROM curators saw it in late November, hidden in the bowels of the Vatican Museums. "It's several floors below the Sistine Chapel," Mr. Fung said. "We were taken to a lab on a dark floor. The kayak was sitting outside the door."

The ROM's Ken Lister, a specialist in Inuit artifacts of the nautical variety, was thrilled. The kayak, about 4.5 metres long and probably a century old, comes from the Mackenzie River Delta. It has a sealskin hull and was used by Inuvialuit to hunt beluga whales. That makes it valuable because most of the other surviving kayaks are much longer and heavier ocean-going examples from the Eastern Arctic. The Canadian Museum of Civilization, however, does have a 1914 kayak from the Mackenzie Delta.

Of the kayak at the Vatican, Mr. Lister said, "It's rare and in good condition, good enough for us to determine how it would handle and how it was made. It would provide a particularly good window into this type of boat."

The kayak is just one of hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of Inuit and Indian artifacts in the museum's vast storage vaults. Mr. Lister said he spotted Inuit ivory sculptures, drums, wooden masks, gut-skin jackets, snow knives used to make igloos, dog-sled harnesses and wooden models of sleds. The visitors also saw, in old catalogues, photos of other items, among them Indian snowshoes, baby carriers called cradle boards, birch-bark baskets, a toboggan and various types of skin clothing.

The Canadian pieces are part of the Vatican's Ethnological Missionary Museum, and it is probable that few have seen daylight since 1925, when Pope Pius XI set up 24 pavilions in the Vatican Gardens for an exhibit of New World, Asian and African artifacts that had been sent to Rome by far-flung missionaries.

More than 100,000 objects were on display, from the kayak to Australian totem poles that Mr. Fung discovered in another room during the tour. Some of the objects were displayed in the ethnological museum, which opened in 1926. The rest went into storage.

The Canadian collection apparently was forgotten. Even ROM officials had no idea it existed.

The ROM wants to trace the origins of the Canadian artifacts and study them in detail. Mr. Fung wants to borrow and display them in a special museum on Toronto's waterfront, which is in sore need of a tourist draw. The museum could be a satellite branch of the ROM.

"We said if he wants to build a museum on the waterfront, we'd help him," said ROM chief executive William Thorsell.

Mr. Fung heard of the Canadian collections of the Vatican and the Hermitage about three years ago, at a fundraising event in Toronto. "I was standing in a group of people and I just overheard some chitchat. It was just a curiosity thing, at first. Later on, I began thinking about it."

First he tried to gain access to the Hermitage's Canadian collection. The effort went through the diplomatic hoops but failed.

His luck changed about a year ago, when he met the Italian owners of Toula restaurant, at the top of the Westin Harbour Castle hotel in Toronto. He asked them whether they had contacts in the Vatican Museums. They said yes, through a law firm in Milan. Mr. Fung asked for an invitation. "Lo and behold, an e-mail came back saying the Vatican would be happy to receive you," he said.

Mr. Fung, an investment banker turned waterfront real-estate developer, didn't know a thing about old Canadian artifacts. So he asked Mr. Thorsell for help. Two ROM officials, Mr. Lister and Mark Engstrom, vice-president of collections and research, were recruited to go to Rome with Mr. Fung.

When the trio landed in Rome, they still had no idea of the collection's makeup. On the first night, Monsignor Roberto Zagnoli, one of the senior curators of the Vatican Museums, took them to dinner. "Ken [Lister]kept saying, 'If only they had a boat; if only they had a boat,' " Mr. Fung recalled. "Then Monsignor Zagnoli dropped the word 'boat' into the conversation and everyone's eyes lit up."

The next morning, they were taken to the Vatican Museums and descended to the lab rooms. They were amazed by the diversity of artifacts.

"We saw a New Guinea longhouse that was 20 to 30 feet long," Mr. Fung said. "The public never sees this stuff."

When they saw the Canadian collection, they were overwhelmed by its diversity. Some of the objects were on shelves. The kayak was on the floor. They flipped through catalogue photos.

Mr. Lister said they were unable to ascertain on the short visit how much documentation exists for the items. He said the collection would be doubly valuable if they could learn which missionary from which Canadian diocese obtained the items. Did the missionary collect other items from the same region? When were they sent to Rome? Did they arrive with documentation? How did a Mackenzie River kayak land in the Vatican, but not a less-rare Eastern Arctic kayak? "We'd like to study this more," Mr. Lister said.

At one point, Mr. Fung delicately asked Father Zagnoli whether the Vatican would be willing to send the collection to Canada. "He said, yes, but that it would be very expensive. I said, 'Prayers or money?' and we all had a good laugh."

Father Zagnoli agreed to talk to the Canadians again about access to the collection. Mr. Fung thinks they parted on good terms because the monsignor treated his guests to a tour of the Sistine Chapel and the Room of Tears, which holds the white robes worn by newly elected popes.

Toronto's Waterfront Revitalization Corp., weary of criticism about the city's bedraggled harbour area, hopes to announce a dazzling new development that would contain public space for exhibits. Even a small portion of the Vatican's Canadian collection would be a great draw, Mr. Fung said.

Mr. Lister thinks that the kayak, as rare as it is, might not be enough on its own to anchor an exhibit. But combining it with other Canadian artifacts from the Vatican could create a unique and compelling display.

"This project is just in its infancy. We were at the Vatican for only three hours. There could be other items of extreme cultural significance from the area where the kayak comes from."