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A Conversation with a Collector

On July 21, 1997, AGO Director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum talked with Ken R. Thomson about his vast range of collecting activity.

MT — When you were growing up, did your family collect?

KT — No, not at all. My father was a collector of businesses, not of art. He did actually buy three paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff - one was not good, two were beautiful and are now in my collection. But that was just a fluke. Nobody in our family had any interest in art. Dad used to wonder why I spent my money on paintings, but he trusted me. He trusted my judgement. He thought I knew what I was doing, or hoped I did. And he supported me.

MT — I am curious to know whether you can remember the moment when you knew that you were, truly, a collector.

KT — The real start was in 1953. I was visiting friends in Bourne-mouth. I saw two ivory busts in a small antique shop. It might not sound very exciting to you, but it excites me even now, talking about it. The busts were small, about three inches high, a pair, exquisitely made and on little marble bases. They were, in effect, tiny miniature replicas of large busts. Later, I discovered that they were made in the 19th century by a man called Benjamin Cheverton, who lived from 1796 to 1876. Cheverton possessed many of the virtues for which Victorians were known. He was an inventor and innovator, a superb craftsman, a technician, an artist and entrepreneur. He invented a sculpture-reproducing machine on the pantograph principle, which enabled him to reproduce exact replicas in ivory of larger sculptures, usually marble busts of important people by such sculptors as Chantrey, Roubilliac and Nollekins, in sizes varying from minute to several inches high. The machine was foot-operated. When Cheverton had captured the exact forms of the large original sculpture, he set the machine aside, finished the ivory bust by hand and mounted it on a small marble base built to exact specifications. The result was a beautiful little bust, an exact replica of the original sculpture but more exquisite, being made of ivory and miniature in size. The busts were for sale. I looked at them, and handled them, and I thought they were wonderful. They seemed so beautiful. And I still think they are. After some haggling I bought them. They cost me £24 the pair - £12, 10 shillings each. From that point I started walking around the streets of London looking for small carvings and sculptures. I do not retain many of the objects that I acquired in my early days of collecting from 1953, because my taste and eye have become more refined, although I still have a few, largely for sentimental reasons.

MT — What did these objects tell you? And where did they lead?

KT — They told me about a wonderful new world I never knew existed. I went to visit the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I wanted to see great works of art. After several years I got to know a dealer named Hermann Baer, a wonderful German of Jewish extraction who was living in London. He was driven out of Germany by Hitler, and he brought to London all that Germanic feeling for small sculpture and works of art. We formed a wonderful team: we loved the same things, and used to have sessions every day. I had to start small, because I didn't have much experience or knowledge, or money for that matter, but he gradually started to move me up. So I had this wonderful experience of connecting with someone who shared my passion.

MT — Where does such trust come from? How do you finally know that you can work so closely with somebody?

KT — It's just a feeling that you have as you go through life as to whether you can trust people. There is something you cannot put a finger on. Little things start to reveal themselves. But I had a very deep experience with Hermann over many years. We got off to the best possible start. On my first visit, he pulled from a drawer two sculptures he had removed that day from a bank vault that were very precious to him, and he showed them to me. He let me hold them. He could tell I was new at collecting these things, and said: "Mr. Thomson, you will not understand these yet. You will one day. They are very fine." These objects are now in my collection. He challenged me. It was a wonderful start.

MT — Could you talk a little bit about some of the objects that you acquired early on? Objects that were particularly important to you?

KT — Well, there is one. There was a man called Spero, an old-fashioned dealer in the West End of London, who had a great eye. He had a shop where there was always the chance of getting a little treasure. One day I visited him, and he said: "Mr. Thomson, there is a small boxwood figure of an old man in the possession of a collector who does not really collect boxwood. He collects Renaissance bronzes and majolica." It had been in the 1862 South Kensington Loan Exhibition, which had representations of all types of works of art - ivories, boxwoods, Limoges, bronzes, silver, etc. I looked at a large illustrated volume of the exhibition, which included an illustration of the old man in boxwood. "This is unbelievable," I said. "Is it available?" "I think it is," he said. "But, you must not look like that when you see it. You must control yourself, and look very solemn. You will put the price up with enthusiasm like that." We got in my car and we drove to the country to see it. It was as wonderful and exciting as I hoped it would be and I made a deal for £1,000, a lot of money in the mid 1950s. I put it in a little box and carried it in my lap, like a baby, as we drove back to London. I remember feeling that if I could get a break like that, then anything was possible.

MT — Did that give you further impetus to collect?

KT — Yes, indeed. That was the reward for me. That was the thrill that you cannot get every day. That is just enough to spur you on, to raise your sights, to make you feel that what you are trying to do is all worthwhile.

MT — Then let me ask you a question without a scientific answer. When you see something, and you love it, how do you know it is good? How would you describe that connection to one object that's greater than your connection to another?

KT — It is feeling and it is touch. When you find something that you love, you must touch it and hold it. That way you are getting as close to the person who made it as you will ever get. And when you get that close to something, when you feel it, when you look at it, if your heart is beating, you know it was made for you.

MT — You have been talking about the feel of the object, and the material of the object. Talk a little bit about the kinds of subjects you do tend to respond to most strongly.

KT — I like sculpture, particularly that related to anatomy, and I like miniaturization. I look at a sculpture and I think of the man who created this starting with a block, just a block, of say, ivory or boxwood. How did he ever end up doing this? It defies my imagination. When I was a kid, I used to whittle away on a piece of wood thinking I might get the shape of a head out of it or something. I never did get anything worth looking at. But, at least, when I look back now, I had that potential to appreciate small sculpture. I developed an admiration for that type of art. I am captured by the fascination of this kind of talent. I like work where the feeling is deep and personal and emotional. I like Gothic ivories, for example, where the forms are not accurate anatomically, or intended to be, but the spirit of the Gothic is deep and moving, which is the true essence of art.

MT — Do you ever find that the chase for something, the actual pursuit for the object, becomes in itself so overwhelming that you lose sight of the object?

KT — Yes, and you have to watch yourself here. I have had one or two examples where I had gone after something for so long that by the time they were available, my taste had changed. I did not pursue them, I let them go. Sometimes that happens. But that is the challenge of collecting. You cannot let sentiment stand in the way. A little sentiment is understandable and tolerable. You have to have a little flexibility. Yet, if the object is not good enough, you had better let somebody else have it, even if the associations are pleasant. You have to focus on quality. On the other hand, objects can be fine and appealing without necessarily being important or expensive. But when you get something that is beautiful and the memories are good, then you have it all.

MT — What makes a good collector? What qualities do you admire in other collectors?

KT — A good eye, foresight, timing. Timing in life is everything, to do things at a time when things seem impossible. You have to have the feel, and confidence in your eye. All good objects enjoy each other's company and live together. You can have an object from the 16th century or whatever, and place it beside a superb 19th-century Netsuke [small kimono toggle]. The materials are different, the subjects are different, but the quality is common between them. These objects can live together if they are beautiful, if each one is of wonderful quality, exquisite workmanship.

MT — Most people would know you primarily as a collector of Canadian art, but when these galleries of European art open, people will be seeing things that they do not normally associate with you. There will be an element of surprise.

KT — Yes, there may be; my collection is highly personal.

MT — Talk, if you will, about what it means to collect European art. When thinking of European art, do you tie into a different sense of history?

KT — Yes, the objects do tend to transport me back across the pages of time. My collection actually goes back to Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman art, but most of it focuses on Europe. Thinking about the objects and when they were created encourages you to use your imagination, to think about what conditions were like in those times. It is interesting to imagine the social, economic and historical conditions in which works of art come into existence. It encourages you to think of other cultures and other circumstances.

MT — A year ago, the newspapers were filled with stories about your successful bid for the Thomas Becket casket at auction and your subsequent generous gesture in permitting this historic treasure to be acquired by the British nation. In the AGO installation of selected objects from your collection, visitors will be able to see the companion Malmesbury reliquary, a work of undeniable beauty and historical potency. How do you feel about having it on view for the Canadian public for the first time?

KT — I think it is very nice that the Malmesbury chasse will be on view. It is a pity that thus far it has not been displayed properly and seen by more people. I still feel that it would have been marvellous to have the Becket and the Malmesbury chasses together. That is what the family had dreamed of for years. But you know that situation would have been an unhappy one from the British perspective. The Thomas Becket casket is an object of great religious and historical importance to England. Few realized that fully until after the nation bought it back. It is an English national treasure and it is now where it belongs. Of the collection more generally, I like the thought that it will be on public view. It might make people see and enjoy objects previously unfamiliar to them. They may find that when they are in London, instead of giving the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert Museum a pass, they may choose to visit them to look at a few more of these lovely objects. It might open up horizons. I do not see how you can walk past these beautiful objects, look at them, and not see the glory of art and its creation.

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