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October 04 2006

Canada’s Cultural Heritage Comes Up at Auction

The Globe and Mail

Sarah Milroy of The Globe and Mail reports that British Columbia’s ‘cultural heritage goes on the block’ when the Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast First Nations Art will be offered at auction in Paris this week. Rather than expecting the Canadian government to fund the acquisition of the Dundas Collection entirely, art dealer Donald Ellis implores private donors to step up in order to secure the return of the majority of works to Canada.

The Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast First Nations Art was acquired by Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas in 1863 from William Duncan, a lay missionary in Old Metlakatla near present-day Prince Rupert. Described by Sotheby’s specialist David Roche as ‘the last important field of collection of Northwest Coast art in private hands,’ the Dundas collection is particularly notable for the diaries that accompany it, which describe in detail the communities Dundas encountered and how his collection was amassed.

Thus, Milroy notes, ‘the Dundas collection is a kind of historic document, a time capsule that reveals and aboriginal culture at a precise moment in time, and Canadian museums — from the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria and Prince Rupert’s Museum of Northern B.C. — are understandably anxious to see some or all of it come home.’

However, valued at an excess of $4 to $5 million, it is unlikely that Canadian museums stand a chance at acquiring some, let alone the majority of works from the Dundas Collection. The  annual MCP program of the Department of Canadian Heritage, which assists institutions in the acquisition of new inventory, has already been severely depleted. The collection is also of significant interest to international museums such as the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris as well as a number of high-profile private collectors.

First Nations communities and scholars are dismayed by the prospect of the collection being scattered around the globe. ‘These things need to come back to the people that made them in the first place,’ James Bryant, a spokesman for the Allied Tribes of Laxkwalaams and Metlakatla is quoted. ‘They hold the history of the tribe that these objects belonged to.’

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Canada’s Cultural Heritage Comes Up at Auction