It would be fair to say that an auction of this caliber comes along very rarely. Perhaps only a few times in your lifetime, if you are lucky. This was one of those times. October 5th at Tudor Hall in Ottawa saw a lifetime of impeccable collecting culminate into one of the best auctions of its genre in the last 15, perhaps 20 years. Joan and Derek Burney are no strangers to the Canadiana scene. They collected for the last 40 years; attending prominent auctions and shows in the US and Canada and rubbing shoulders with some of the top dealers in the country, had allowed this distinguished Family to amass what has come to be known as the Burney Collection. After a long and distinguished career as the former Ambassador to the U.S. and then as the Chief of Staff to Brian Mulroney, the Burneys had decided to sell their lovely Ottawa home and move closer to their children. This move and change in lifestyle was the catalyst that facilitated the sale of, by all accounts, one of the most important collections of Canadiana in the country.
In 2017, Peter Baker launched his all-important book titled “Celebrating Canada – Decorating with History in a Contemporary Home”. The book is based on the lifetime single collection of the Burneys. The book illustrates not only the love and passion that Joan and Derek share for our Canadian history and culture, which is immense, but to a greater degree, the historical significance a collection of this magnitude is to Canadian culture. The book launch took place at the Burney residence in Ottawa. Many of the contributors to the collection, dealers and friends were in attendance. Almost all the photos in the book were taken in situ, in their home. An impressive testament to the decorating prowess and dedication of Joan Burney.
Since the Burneys had made the decision to divest their collection, they turned to their longtime friend Peter Baker to find a path forward with an auction house that had the experience to handle a sale of this caliber. This was the impetus for Peter to contact Pridham’s Auctions and Appraisals and ask that we sell the collection to the global market through our company. We were thrilled with the opportunity and there began an amazing journey of learning and discovery as we had the privilege of meeting the Burneys and handling their amazing Collection.
As Peter had been a consultant to the Burneys for a very long time and therefore had intimate knowledge of the collection, he was an invaluable resource on all the technical aspects of the collection. Article history, provenance, perceived value in the marketplace, etc were derived from Peter’s firsthand knowledge of the Collection. After spending three years writing “Celebrating Canada” there was a wonderful archive of photographs and descriptions that allowed us to get out of the gates in style. Augmentation was made with French descriptions, additional photographs and then a stellar catalogue was produced. It became wildly popular with requests for a copy coming in from all over North America. This was an early litmus test about what was to come.
Tudor Hall in Ottawa has a long history of hosting auctions. An elegant place with lots of free parking and centrally located, it was a strategic choice that was agreed to by the entire team. It was also large enough to accommodate not only the 320 lots to be sold, but the large crowds we were anticipating. Pridham’s team has a lot of experience at setting up high-end auctions. We have had the pleasure to have sold the estates of several fine families of Montreal and Ottawa over the years, so experience was on our side when creating a beautiful visual experience with the collection. Mr. François Guenet, head of set design at Pridham’s, did a masterful job blending Peter’s wishes for key item placement and the remaining lots. The result was highly experiential when entering the room.
Preview commenced at 10:00 a.m. on Friday morning. A steady stream of registrants flowed through the preview all day long. Hundreds of people were anxiously anticipating what was to come the next morning, eagerly lining up to register and obtain the all-important bidder card. By the end of day Friday, we were confident we had a tiger on our hands. We couldn’t be more ready and excited.
We had set out about 220 chairs the night before, which filled the room almost to the back wall. By 9:00 a.m. the next morning it became apparent this was not nearly enough. The situation soon morphed into standing room only. It is safe to say that virtually every important dealer and collector related to the genre of Canadiana was either in the room, on the phone or online. Our online presence that day was equal to the presence in the room. It was one of the most dynamic and exciting moments in our company’s recent history and the day was just getting started!
The sale could be broken down into several subcategories, each filled with a magnificent selection of items within each category. I will provide some highlights here, but this is really like going to your favourite museum and trying to describe just part of your experience when you really loved it all.
The star of the sale was a beautiful Louis XV small armoire in original pastel blue paint. Raised panels on all sides with the upper panels of the doors beautifully carved with a foliate design. All original inside and out, circa 1780; a beauty. It moved quickly from the presale estimate of $45,000 to become the top lot at $103,500. Lot 184 was a rare French Regime period (1690-1720) armchair (fauteuil). All original and all intact, reupholstered in a complimentary style fabric, this was a rare opportunity to own a piece of early French-Canadian heritage. A young couple seated in the aisle did just that. With a winning bid of $31,625, they could barely contain themselves, with hugs and high fives all around.
Lot 37 was a gorgeous two door, two drawer buffet in original yellow paint. Originating from Norfolk County, Ontario, it sold for $11,500 which was at the high-end of the estimate. A very interesting campaign table in original blue paint seemed reasonable at $2,875 and a sweet little Quebec Regency style country drum table made $5,175.
There were numerous birds or groups of birds within the sale. They came in all shapes and sizes. Top lot in this category was a mid-19th century large full-bodied tin rooster, in great condition and form. It would easily make the focal point in any room. It sold for $10,350. Lot 34 was a rig of four Yellowlegs shore birds, found in P.E.I. They flew into the hands of a new owner for $6,900 with strong bidding. A fan favorite was Lot 27, a Root-Head Yellowlegs shorebird by William Rowlings. This little cutie made $2,300 with an estimate of $600 – $900.
Art within the folk art genre tends to be valued a little differently than what I have always been accustomed to when dealing with fine art. Where auction records or sales records tend to be the benchmark for determining valuations within the fine art world, the folk art world operates on a different level with more value placed on historic provenance. Top lot in this category was Lot 130, Frederick S. Barnjum, oil on canvas, depicting two sleighs coming up Mount Royal pulled by oxen and horses. It was a charming and energetic example that someone was more than happy to pay $8,625 for.
Another Canadian example by John Ruggles provided us with a historic view of Dundas, Ontario. With the landscape still somewhat recognizable to those familiar with the region, this oil on canvas made a respectable $5,750.
One of the true folk art paintings in the sale was the oil on canvas by William Glenworth Loney depicting two pheasants in a winter forest scene. Loney was a blacksmith in Prince Edward County, Ontario, who painted and carved in his spare time. Perhaps he should have done more painting and less blacksmithing as this charming example hammered down at $4,600.
The sale was filled with fantastic carvings and sculpture. There was not one piece that did not pass the discerning eye of either the collector or the curator. This was evident in the strong results and interest. My favourite piece turned out to be the top lot in this category: Lot 220 by Jean-Baptiste Côté (1834-1907) “The Habitant.” Carved from a single block of wood, wearing a blue tuque, khaki coat, red sash and brown boots, he was amazing. Vibrant and beautifully sculpted with exceptional detail the bidding soared to close at $34,500.
Lot 81, the jointed policeman was also attractive. Made of pine and wearing a black uniform, he was very unusual. At just under two feet in height this feisty example turned many heads and closed at $12,650.
There were a couple of stellar examples of flying angels in this sale. Lot 215, a 19th century Quebec carving with flowing hair holding a gold painted trumpet was an excellent example with fine detail and original paint. It sold for $9,775 with enthusiastic bidding.
Another much talked-about lot was the carved and painted trout, Lot 123. Attributed to E. Coste of Montreal, this speckled trout group was complete and original, right down to the hanging ring and string. Plenty of pre-sale interest helped this lot catch the attention of the winning bidder at $8,625.
There were many examples from important carvers in the sale, including Lot 74, the sitting squirrel gnawing on a nut by Damase Richard (1852-1922) was a buyers’ favourite. This early example by the carver was simple and understated yet managed to exude an expressive presence. With original paint intact this little fellow gnawed his way into a new home for $4,025.
Boxes and box like items come in all shapes, sizes and values. The market typically responds very strongly to this art form, particularly if they are rare, and we had some rare examples on offer. Convent boxes are a much sought-after item, and I would say with some certainty that we had the largest selection in any one sale in Canada in quite some time. Lot 159 was an extremely handsome example, with its original polychrome colour. The lid was carved with a pinwheel, hearts and foliage, late 18th Century, Quebec. Estimated to bring $8,000 to $12,000, the lid was put on at $17,250; a fantastic result for a very rare item.
Speaking of rare items, the smallest box in the sale brought one of the biggest results. Lot 120, an 1837 “Rebellion Box” made by William Alves while imprisoned for treason in the Toronto Jail exceeded expectations to hammer down at $9,200. With historic references to the protests led by William Lyon Mackenzie at the time, this little box offers a window into the turbulent political past that went into the making of the country we know today. At only 1 5/8″ high this diminutive box packed a big punch.
A fancy allegorical carved walking stick depicting the early history of Ancienne Lorette, Quebec, moved briskly to settle at $12,650. Lot 261, a painted Parcheesi game board, beautifully decorated in vibrant colours of coral and yellow, with a house painted in the middle was the top lot out of numerous game board examples in the sale.
The sale remained strong from the opening lot to the very end. One of the last lots on offer was Lot 290, a magnificent folky deed box. The original surface carved in relief with a fish, dog, eagle and cat on a gouge carved background. After nearly six hours of auctioning, the bidding remained vibrant for this lot, closing out at $8,625. This was a testament to the vast quality that was offered that day.
This sale was of historic proportions and will remain in the memory of all those who attended, our staff and myself for some time to come. These results demonstrate once again that there is a strong appetite in Canada for items that relate to our history and roots. Provenance, quality and rarity remain important contributing factors to successful sales results in the Canadiana genre, or any other for that matter. In a crowded marketplace, the cream will always rise to the top! We would like to take this opportunity to extend our most sincere thanks to Peter Baker and to Mr. & Mrs. Joan and Derek Burney – we are wishing them the very best for all their new ventures.
Robin Andrew Pridham, principal of Pridham’s Auction House Inc. in Ottawa, is a graduate of Reppert’s Auction Business School (Indiana, USA), a member of the National Auctioneers Association, the Auctioneers Association of Ontario and has 30 years experience buying and selling antiques and fine art.
Additional thanks to Peter Baker for the use of his images.