Published: October 15, 2019
Review by Laura Beach, Photos Courtesy Pridham’s and Peter E. Baker
OTTAWA, ONTARIO, CANADA – Peter Baker, who readers may know from his annual stand at Midweek in Manchester, began dealing in early rural Canadian furnishings and accessories in 1976. He lives in Elgin, Quebec, equidistant to Montreal and Plattsburgh, N.Y., each about 1½ hours away, and is especially knowledgeable about Quebec material of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
One couple with whom Baker has worked over the years is Joan and Derek Burney, prominent Ottawans who assembled an important collection of Canadiana, displayed in their house in Canada’s capital city. Derek Burney was chief of staff to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, 1987-89 and Ambassador to the United States, 1989-93. He helped negotiate the first NAFTA agreement, ratified in 1994, and, as talks of a new deal dragged on in 2018, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the renegotiated agreement should perhaps be known as “Shaft ‘Ya.”
Baker worked with Joan Burney to publish Celebrating Canada: Decorating with History in a Contemporary Home, illustrated with pieces from the Burney collection and published by Dundurn in association with the Canadian Museum of History in honor of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation in 2017.
When a lifestyle change prompted the couple to sell their Canadiana collection, they once again turned to Baker, who coordinated the October 5 auction conducted by Pridham’s in Ottawa. Founded in 2011, Pridham’s is bilingual, an important consideration given the collection’s emphasis on the arts of Quebec, which Baker says accounted for more than half of the sale. Also key was the auctioneer’s reputation for handling prominent estates and large collections.
In her preface to Celebrating Canada, Joan Burney writes that it was a red-painted sap-gathering basket purchased for Christmas in the 1970s, along with the book Collecting Canada’s Past by Jean and Elizabeth Smith, that set the Burneys on their collecting journey. They bought at shows and auctions, never relying on just one source for advice.
During their years in Washington, DC, they got to know the American antiques market and were mentored by the redoubtable Martha Bartlett, a collector and society hostess whose influence lingers at the York Antiques Show. Bartlett’s advice, according to Joan Burney, “learn here and then buy when you go home.”
Thus the bilingual auction catalog makes intriguing mention in its provenance notes to the “ancienne collection de Marguerite Riordan” and includes a handful of pieces that are American-made or found in the United States and repatriated to Canada, the latter a source of pride to Baker.
Baker writes that he and Joan Burney first bonded at Montreal’s Bonaventure Antiques Show over a primitive portrait, auctioned by Pridham’s for $665, of 17-year-old Madilla Smith, whose father’s family moved to Ontario from New Jersey. Identified as Ezekiel Sexton (1820-1859), the portraitist moved from upstate New York in 1830.
“If Joan bought something, within two weeks she knew more about the object than the dealer who sold it to her. She loved to do the research. It added great value to the collection,” Baker says. One triumph of research was a candlewick coverlet, $887, found at a Toronto antiques market in the late 1980s and inscribed “Concurrence Seward Wilcox, AD. 1821.” In one of many cross-border connections, Concurrence was born in Killingworth, Conn., the descendent of original Stratford colonists. Her father and uncle founded the town of Twinsburg, Ohio. Her nephew Charles Seward Wilcox helped establish the Hamilton Steel and Iron Company, now Stelco, in Ontario.
The October 5 auction of the Burney collection went off without a hitch, with prices highest for folk art, important furniture and objects of rare historical interest. Highlights are arrayed on these pages. In a follow-up conversation, auction house president and chief executive officer Robin Pridham told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “The Burney collection was at the highest level, one of the best of its kind in 20 years. It represented decades of passion on the part of the collectors. The response from the market was tremendous. We had a packed house, maybe 250 people in the hall. Our bidding platform, Live Auctioneers, was humming, as were our phones and absentee bidding. The whole thing was very dynamic and exciting.”
For Baker, one piece, which sold for $7,095, speaks to what is notable about this landmark sale. It is a humble wooden box, only 3½ inches long, with a top and side inscribed with verse by prisoner William Alves, held in Toronto Jail for his role in the 1837 rebellion against the British in Upper Canada. “It’s one of those things you put in a cupboard and don’t even see it. It’s subtle, not decorative. The historical connection is what counts,” Baker says.
As Burney wrote in Celebrating Canada, “Respect for our material heritage is an essential part of our understanding our history and thus ourselves… May the passion never stop.”
Prices were converted from Canadian to US dollars and include the buyer’s premium.
Pridham’s Ottawa office is at 440 Laurier Avenue West. For information, 877-533-5877 or www.pridhams.ca.
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