Review by Laura Beach, Photos Courtesy Crowther & Brayley
WAVERLEY, NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA – “Pivot is the word we use here,” says Halifax-area auctioneer Bill Brayley, describing the way Nova Scotia businesses adapted to Covid-19. Canada, with roughly one-tenth the US population, has had more restrictions but substantially fewer deaths per capita than its southern neighbor.
While prioritizing public health – Nova Scotia only recently began allowing the resumption of travel from outside Atlantic Canada – has meant painful cutbacks for businesses, Brayley and his wife, Mary, feel fortunate. “Because we’re connected to trust companies and banks, we fell under their umbrella as part of the financial sector. When the government asked us to go to work, we went to work. The hot real estate market and fast closings have kept us busy clearing houses over the past 16 months. We pivoted from live auctions and began selling online,” explains Brayley, who last year joined the selling platform HiBid.
Crowther & Brayley’s signature Chester Sale, conducted annually in the yachting resort on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, in most years draws an international mix of well-heeled visitors. “We typically put things away for our Chester Sale. This year, with restrictions in place on travel and crowd capacity, I advised clients to sell before buyers begin shifting disposable income back into travel and entertainment.”
The Chester Sale has evolved into a prime venue for art associated with Atlantic Canada and Quebec, with the most desirable lots in the best years often reaching into the high five-figures. This year’s Chester Sale was a more subdued if still representative affair. It kicked off with the oil on canvas “Old Wharves,” $2,289, by Dusan Kadlec, a Czech-born artist known for his meticulous renditions of the Halifax waterfront.
Top honors went to “Sun on the Hills,” $7,508, an appealing winter view of 1928 by Frederick Simpson Coburn, a Quebec artist who spent nearly three decades in Europe, mostly in Antwerp.
Another highlight was a small farm scene in winter, $4,944, by the Quebec artist Joseph-Charles Franchere.
One of the most collected Canadian artists working today is the Newfoundland-born printmaker David Lloyd Blackwood. From an edition of 25, his 1974 aquatint “The Burning of William Fifield’s Forge” achieved $3,022.
With Nathan M. Greenfield’s new biography Anything but a Still Life on the New Brunswick artists Molly Lamb and Bruno Bobak just out, Bobak’s oil on board sketch “Early Spring Evening” found a ready buyer at $1,511.
There was also interest in Mabel Killam Day, who studied with Robert Henri in New York before returning to Nova Scotia, where she was born. “Low Tide,” her view of Rose Bay, achieved $2,930.
In the decorative arts category, a circa 1835 New Brunswick chest of drawers with rope and anthemion carving garnered $1,877. The piece has a history in the family of Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley, a descendant of American Loyalists and a Father of Canada’s Confederation.
The name Henry Birks and Sons, the Montreal retailer, is a potent lure in the category of silver and jewelry. Of special interest this round was a Birks tall case clock purchased circa 1915 by Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor David MacKeen for his house, Maplewood. With London works, the clock went for $1,555.
Crowther & Brayley concluded with maps of regional interest. One favorite was “A Plan of the Harbour of Chebucto and town of Halifax,” attributed to Thomas Jefferys. Sometimes called the “Porcupine” map, the engraved harbor view, $696, of circa 1750 is beloved for its flamboyant depiction of a quilled rodent along with a musk beetle, butterflies and heraldic imagery.
“We’ve had maybe four or five of these maps over the years,” Brayley said.
With the Canadian border only recently reopened to American travelers, works appealing to American buyers were less robust than usual. Two artists with American followings are the Australia-born Hayley Lever and the Nova Scotia-born Jack Lorimer Gray. Lever did reasonably well, his small oil sketch “Sailboats off the Coast of Brittany” of 1908 making $3,663. But Gray’s substantial “Setting the Decoys, Ironbound” of 1975 failed to make reserve and passed at $27,800. A fascinating painting with a notable exhibition history, the canvas seems destined to find its level another time.
Prices, converted to US dollars, include buyer’s premium.
Crowther & Brayley’s next sale is tentatively set for October. For information, 902-423-3226 or www.crowther-brayley.com.