By Robin Pridham.
I recently had the privilege of conducting my first “architectural salvage” auction. It was a really interesting experience and garnered a lot more interest than we were anticipating. There were almost 200 lots, including everything from gates, lighting, wrought iron in all shapes and sizes, doors, stained glass windows, antique and vintage hardware… and the list goes on. Personally, I love the stuff, as do many of my friends and colleagues. So, what is the attraction? Why the draw to acquire these things when about 80% of what we sold required a truck or trailer for moving, or at the very least a trusty minivan. People showed up from hours away and registered bidders as far afield as California! The answer to this question is the answer that is true for all collecting areas of the Decorative Arts (yes, this is part of the Decorative Arts!): it’s the quality .
The quality of industrial or architectural art lies in the traditional craftsmanship used to create items of beauty and intrigue that you may have walked past a thousand times. It could be a park bench, with beautifully cast and sumptuous legs, or a stained glass transom, set above the top of a door on that old Victorian house on the corner of your street. Perhaps it is the lighting leading to your favourite subway station, there for years, then one day replaced with a newer “improved” version. Once gone, you start to revere the unmistakable quality that has suddenly disappeared. Items like door handles that you’ve always admired when entering your favourite store are swiftly being replaced by modern, made in China versions. I experienced this phenomenon recently myself when Canada Post decided to “modernize” our local post office. The little Art Deco gem that you find dotted around the country side of rural Ontario had the most wonderful bronze exterior postage box affixed to the wall. Complete with the Coat of Arms, it was period to the building. After the “upgrades” to the building, the box was removed and the gaping hole unceremoniously covered with a piece of steel. I asked the young gent at the counter where it may have ended up, and his response was not what I wanted to hear.
These types of replacements are taking place every day across the country, and the world for that matter. The loss of our material heritage is accelerating at a feverish pace. Grand old dames are being knocked down so that yet another condo project may be erected. But be still thy patrons of all things architectural, there is hope! There is a breed of human out there who is intent on saving, preserving and reoffering reclaimed artifacts to those who see the beauty in these heritage items. I had a client show up to pick-up a lot of items he and his partner had purchased from our Architectural Auction. It was an interesting encounter, a bit of an eye opener – a reminder – that there are dedicated folks out there that get in first. This means they are first on the demolition scene, usually by invitation, as they have taken the time and resources to build a working relationship with the contractor. These daring souls have the resolve and keen eye to save the stained glass, newel posts, hardware, lighting, trim and anything else they can physically remove that has some artistic value. They climb to great heights, risk being creamed by a wrecking ball and sometimes have to dodge the police to ensure what little heritage we have left in this country is not buried beneath a pile of rotting diapers and discarded junk. A little dramatic I know, but I want to make sure you get the picture. Architectural salvage or reclamation is all about appreciation and creativity. To really make these items rock you have to be able to “see” a purpose of what may not be obvious at first. For example, iron gates and grates do not necessarily have to be used as such. The artistic central form, usually the “wow” factor of these items, can be put on display by accentuating negative space of the central design. In other words, find a way to hang it on the wall! Enjoy the beauty of the craftsmanship.
We sold a group of four super cool subways lights, once used to light the entrance of TTC subway stations. The only issue was that they were ten feet tall. When the client came to pick them up, I suggested that he cut the frame just below the light and bolt them to the wall. Exactly what I intend to do, he said! Once modified, they will be very cool and rare and likely find a Chicago buyer. Building an addition? Incorporate some beautiful stained-glass transoms or panels. Installing a fireplace? How about some Art Nouveau or Art Deco tiles to knock it out of the park? Large architectural columns are fantastic when incorporated into new or existing deck structure. We had four beauties last weekend, all very stately pieces over ten feet high. The new owner was thrilled with the quality and size. Doors, windows, grates and gates, iron fencing, paneling, lighting and hardware; the list goes on. This is a diverse and hugely interesting area of collecting. The beauty lies in the creative mind of the beholder. You have to live somewhere, so whether it is a house, a condo with an industrial look or even your apartment, there is something for everyone in the architectural field. All sizes, shapes and materials. Get inspired with some good decorating magazines then hit the road and find your own piece of our material heritage that you can call your own. It will enrich your life.
Robin Pridham, owner of Pridham’s Auction House with offices in Montreal, Ottawa and Vankleek Hill, Ontario, is a graduate of Reppert’s Auction Business School (Indiana, USA), and a member of the National Auctioneers Association and the Auctioneers Association of Ontario. He has over 30 years experience buying and selling antiques and art. He is also a guest expert on the television show “Baggage Battles.”