Is Now A Good Time To Collect Traditional Canadian Folk Art?

Is Now A Good Time To Collect Traditional Canadian Folk Art?

There was a time when little was known about traditional Canadian Folk Art. The world was focused on collecting folk art from other cultures and turned a blind eye to Canada’s treasure trove of riches. But by the 1970s, collectors were ready to sit up and take notice.

What is Traditional Canadian Folk Art?

In simple terms, traditional Canadian folk art is something practical made decorative. The object once had a purpose in the household or was used at work. Take duck decoys, for example. As a means of attracting waterfowl, decoys were in huge demand. Many skilled tradesmen took up carving them to make a profit. They created realistic works of beauty, with some painted in intricate, colourful detail. But they were a hunting tool, a way of survival and feeding your family. Decoys, therefore, epitomize the very nature of traditional Canadian folk art, both in beauty and utility.

Canadian Decoys Are Just About To Take Off!

According to Nora Sterling and Jackie Kalman, authors of a 1977 article published in Antiques and Art Magazine ,

"Generally studied in a category unto themselves, decoys have a significant place in the spectrum of folk art. These decoys were utilitarian. They were meant, through their likenesses, to attract birds to be shot. The early makers sold their decoys for 20 cents to 50 cents a piece. However, when market gunning was prohibited in 1918, decoy makers and factories went out of business, so the sportsman, by default, became his own decoy maker."

These days you can find decoys at any rural auction across the country, and online at auction sites like eBay and even Christie’s. The price range for these folk art pieces is vast, with lesser decoys starting at $35. More substantial artefacts, like the decoys crafted by A. Elmer Crowell, have sold for more than a million dollars.

Crowell was born in 1862 and lived in East Harwich, Massachusetts, until he died in 1952. He was a master decoy carver and is reputed as being the best of his time. His works are highly collectible.

In 2007, Stephen O’Brien Jr. Fine Arts in Massachusetts brokered a sale of two decoys by Crowell to a private collector. One was a preening Canada goose and the other was a preening pintail that previously had sold at Christie’s in 2003 for $800,000. Both decoys are in exquisite condition and they sold for $1.13 million each, breaking the world record.

According to O’Brien, Crowell’s Canada goose decoy is known in the trade as "the Holy Grail of decoys," and the preening pintail as "the most important bird in America."

While Canadian decoys are still catching up to the American carvings, that’s about to change thanks to two major decoy collectors by the name of Peter Brown and Dr. Jim Stewart. Their decoy collection has been appraised at $2.5 million dollars. Some of these beautiful birds were sold at auction a few years ago at Guyette and Deeter.

According to Steven Lloyd of Rogues’ Hollow Antiques, who runs The National Decoy Information Centre out of Thomasburg, Ontario, collectors of Canadian decoys feel they are undervalued compared to American decoys. He says:

"Although antique decoys from the United States frequently command higher prices, Canadian works are often undervalued, but are starting to gain increasing recognition."

Although antique decoys from the United States frequently command higher prices, Canadian works are often undervalued, but are starting to gain increasing recognition.

"Assembled over decades, their individual collections feature works from exceptional regional carvers and many species. Their gifts to Canadian organizations help protect these treasures of Canada’s heritage and serve to educate and celebrate diverse wildfowl and the unique talents of Canada’s carvers."

You can view some decoys from the Peter Brown collection here.

Folk Artists Are Unschooled But Not Unskilled

Hunting and farming was a way of life for many of these first settlers to Canada. It was this lifestyle that they depicted in their folk art. In the Art Gallery of Hamilton, you can find an example of a masterful work of folk art done by a 19th century farmer by the name of Ebenezer Birrell. He was said to be so proud of his livestock, he wanted to immortalize them in paint. Birrell possessed a high level of skill both at farming and painting. Even though as a folk artist, he was untrained and self-taught, his work is exceptional. One of the best places to find works by traditional Canadian folk artists are museums but you can also find exquisite selections at reputable auction houses.

Folk Art Is Both Personal And Cultural

Whether it’s crockery, quilts, toys, rugs or furniture, boxes and storage trunks, in each piece, you can see a reflection of the times and the people of the day. When the first settlers were carving out a life for themselves in Canada, they arrived from countries like Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Ukraine, and brought with them their own religious faiths, customs and traditions.

For example, French colonists were known for their religious votives, expressions of thanks to their divinity for the gifts bestowed upon them in this life. Likewise, other cultures created their own symbols of faith and have left behind a vast collection of traditional folk art representing these religious beliefs.

Woodwork and whittling were common activities among the men of these families, whereas the ladies preferred quilting and embroidery. Both feature largely in traditional folk art collectibles, though the wooden creations have survived the more delicate textiles. Popular items are wooden boxes, hefty trunks and whimsical wooden figurines.

Evenings spent in front of the fire whittling wood has produced many a fine artist in this folk art tradition. Perhaps one of the most recognized is Quebec carver, Jean-Baptiste Coté. He was also a respected caricaturist, architect, glider, wood engraver, publisher, and printer. Some of his most charming pieces can be found at the Musée Des Beaux-Arts Montréal.

Today, with the release of popular movies like Maud, traditional Canadian folk art is experiencing a second awakening. Now everybody’s interested in Canadian folk art! Now's a good time to start collecting.

Here are a few places worth checking out:

Kindly observe that the provided links above focus on Ontario, Canada locations. However, you can explore similar local destinations no matter where you are situated.

Happy Hunting!

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