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January 05 2007

Donald Ellis Secures Dundas Collection at Auction

Maine Antiques Digest

A featured article by Lita Solis-Cohen in the Maine Antiques Digest reports that Donald Ellis was able to acquire an important part of the Dundas collection of Northwest Coast First Nations art sold at auction with Sotheby’s on October 5, 2006. Following a galvanizing article in The Globe and Mail, Ellis was bidding on behalf of two Canadian institutions, two American collectors, a Canadian collector, and a Canadian benefactor who had never bought in the field before.

Through aggressive bidding, Ellis was able to secure 28 of the 57 lots offered, boosting the sale total to $7,030,600, a new auction record for First Nations art. Among the most important works are a Tsimshian portrait mask purchased for $1,808,000 and an 18th century Tsimshian or Tlingit antler club sold for $940,000, each setting records for their forms. An important part of Canada’s cultural heritage, the works will return to Canada for the first time since 1863.

The 80 objects offered for sale at Sotheby’s were threatened to be dispersed among private collectors in America, Canada, France, England and Spain. Although the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, the Royal British Columbian Museum in Victoria, and the Museum of northern British Columbia in Prince Rupert were all interested in the return of the Dundas collection to Canada, none of them had sufficient funds. 

Donald Ellis is quoted as saying that it was an abomination that the Canadian government and museums had waited until the last moment to mobilize their forces. He credited an article by Sarah Milroy published in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading newspaper, as galvanizing private support.

The article also reveals the tedious, three-decades long negotiations between Simon Carey, a professor of clinical psychology in London, England, and museums in Canada, Britain and the United States. Carey is the descendent of Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas, who had acquired a number of important First Nations objects from the English lay missionary William Duncan in 1863. Dundas’ descendants still retain the diaries describing the communities and exact circumstances under which the collection was acquired. It is hoped that the Dundas archives will be published a long with a scholarly catalog detailing the collection.

The Dundas collection will likely be exhibited in 2007 at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and reside in the permanent collections of two Canadian institutions thereafter.  

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Donald Ellis Secures Dundas Collection at Auction