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Robert Amos: Celebrating a lifetime in the antiques trade

Leonard Clarke is a native of Cork, Ireland, a town founded in 923 AD. He grew up surrounded by “so many old things,” he told me. I spent the morning with him at Pacific Antiques, his shop at 829 Fort St. (250-388-5311, ).

robertamos.jpgLeonard Clarke is a native of Cork, Ireland, a town founded in 923 AD. He grew up surrounded by “so many old things,” he told me. I spent the morning with him at Pacific Antiques, his shop at 829 Fort St. (250-388-5311, Clarke, who is 88 years old, is going to take “early retirement” and close his shop at year’s end — after 59 years in the business.

First, he wanted to tell me that everything in the exquisite vitrines that line his shop would be offered at half price through December, with proceeds going to the “soup kitchen” in the basement of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Clarke has volunteered there since its inception in 1982, serving nourishing soup to about 200 people, five days a week. Now that he can no longer wait on tables, he still wants to do what he can.

Clarke spoke to me in his gentle Irish brogue, as my eyes ranged over cases filled with Japanese satsuma ware, 500 year-old blue-and-white china brought up from a sunken ship, and supremely elegant Georgian silver and glass. This man knows his stuff.

Back when he was just a lad of 13, he bought his first antique: a brass pipe-tamper with a tiny statue of Nelson on the handle. Later, he was a Ford motorcar dealer in Cork with a passion for antiques, until one day he made the plunge and opened a little shop supplied with rare goods from the Irish countryside as well as his frequent visits to the salerooms in London. Before long, he became a founder-member of the Irish Antique Dealers Association, a group of which he was later made honorary lifetime president. Clarke arrived in Victoria in 1976.

Victoria has a wonderful history regarding decorative arts. Katherine Maltwood’s remarkable collection, now stored away, was the original nucleus of the University of Victoria’s art gallery. Back in the 1940s, Ann and Joseph Pearson operated a shop specializing in the beginnings of English porcelain, and the cream of their collection was given to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1977, which at the time built a special gallery for decorative arts. Faith Grant operated in what is now called Wentworth Villa, an old house up Fort Street; Pegasus Antiques was operated by Peggy Freethy, and Clark mentioned “the Dutch Boys,” Van Hall Antiques, which specialized in silver and ceramics from the Nanking Cargo.

“Mike Cotton was the best dealer Victoria ever had,” Clarke reminisced. “His knowledge of the field was unequalled. He retired a year before I came … and died just two years ago.”

I mentioned Alex Toppin, who presided plump and henna-dyed at the back of her shop on the north side of Fort Street. “Amazing,” Clarke called her. “I liked her. Her father was one of the founders of the English Ceramics Circle, but she didn’t know porcelain from stoneware.”

In colonial days, Victoria had been home to many “remittance men,” whose families packed them off to the colonies with households of furnishings. These items passed through local auction houses years ago. In the early 1970s, Canada redefined “antiques” as anything more than 50 years old, and the city was flooded with containers of shabby old furniture. “The English dealers couldn’t have been happier,” Clarke said with a laugh.

For the more discerning, the shops of Rosemary Wells, Wendy Russell, and Myra and Terry Waller specialized in antique jewelry and precious little things. But with the rise of the Internet, fewer people came in person to do their browsing. And then the economic downturn of 2008 resulted in a “huge difference to the business,” Clarke reported. Ireland’s economy virtually collapsed, and now wholesale prices in Britain are higher than the retail prices in Victoria. The times have changed, and the rare and beautiful things Clarke has to offer sit waiting for someone who can appreciate them.

Yet bargains abound. Clarke told me that the recent Ross sale by Lund’s (held at the Empress) resulted in highly inflated prices, but just days later in Lund’s sale room on Fort Street, he attended an antiques sale that he says could have been broken up into two “super sales,” A Chinese punch bowl sold at the Empress for $26,000, but Clarke bought another, more attractive example, at the auction rooms on Fort Street for just $1,600. He also came home with two ivory wrist rests from China and four Japanese netsuke.

“I’ve been collecting for 75 years,” he said, “and I will stop when I die.” Clarke said he lives surrounded by his treasures — “nothing in boxes.” His apartment is the scene of meetings of an informal “ceramics circle” here in town, where aficionados meet to talk pottery, a different theme every time.

Just up the block from Pacific Antiques, Britannia Antiques has opened, operated by John Newman and his wife. And Clarke spoke highly of Ron Forbes, whose Applewood Antiques is across the road. “He’s a good dealer, with a good knowledge, and he’s ready to learn,” Clarke noted approvingly. And Faith Grant “on the Avenue,” operated by Forrest and Heather Graham, is now located farther east toward Oak Bay.

Antique Row isn’t what it once was, and when Clarke leaves, he will be impossible to replace. Please drop in, take a last loving look, and buy something you cherish. It will benefit the soup kitchen, and then on Dec. 31 Leonard Clarke will turn out the lights at Pacific Antiques.