Alison Ross is the owner of Kilshaw’s Auctioneers, a Victoria fixture since 1949. She bought the business from her former boss, Don Kilshaw, in 2006 and has developed it as perhaps the premier auction house for art on the Island.
I met Ross on a Friday morning after a Thursday night sale, and all manner of things were being trundled in and out of the auction room. At times, there are 15 employees, and on a day-to-day basis Ross works with two auctioneer/appraisers, accredited by the Canadian Personal Property Appraisal Group of Canada.
Two office staff and a floor manager help her out, because each week about 150 different consigners need attention.
Ross’s background includes a master’s degree in art history from the University of Victoria, and in the past she taught there, and at Camosun and Malaspina colleges. She sometimes took her pupils to Kilshaw’s and one day, out of the blue, Don Kilshaw called to offer her a job.
“Do you want to give it a shot?” he asked. She certainly did.
Ross dove right in, cataloguing, photographing and offering suggestions almost every day. “Don was really wonderful,” she recalled — he took up every idea she had. When he decided to step back, she was ready to take over.
Selling things is easy. It’s getting them that takes skill.
“We make house calls,” she reminded me. “We prefer to go out to see the things before people show up with them.” It’s often what people think is not valuable — “that nasty old vase” — that proves to be the discovery. Ross mentioned a Christopher Dresser vase from Ault Pottery that was destined for the Goodwill but sold at Kilshaw’s for $1,000. “Do not throw anything out until I’ve seen it,” she counsels.
Asian art was the subject of a “hugely successful” sale at Kilshaw’s in September. “It hadn’t been done in this city before,” Ross noted, but the timing was right. A burgeoning middle class of Chinese background seems eager to buy up their heritage, and Victoria is a good place to find it.
Since the arrival of the Internet, Victoria sales have attracted international buyers. In 2008, she had a painting by Johann Koler, “the father of Estonian painting,” to sell.
Depicting Tsar Alexander III, it was painted when Koler was the tutor to his children.
She marketed it extensively in eastern Europe and it was sold to a museum in Estonia for $80,000. At another sale, a “very dark landscape” by Hudson River School artist Albert Bierstadt sold for $200,000. It can happen here.
Ross is equally excited about local art. “You can get fabulous artworks by well-known and well-respected local artists for less than you would pay for a framed limited-edition reproduction,” she told me.
While paintings of national importance typically go to Heffel’s auction house in Vancouver, her forthcoming sale has art by Sam Black, Sybil Andrews, Herbert Siebner, Nita Forrest and a host of others — excellent quality at local prices.
“We encourage clients to talk to us,” Ross said. “We see hundreds of artworks every week, and we are constantly learning. Nothing can compare with the education you get working here.”
If the auctioneer knows what you are looking for, she might be able to encourage a consignor to send something in.
“We find little treasures every week,” Ross bubbled. “That’s what keeps us going.”
She spoke about “trench art” and its followers, and the growing enthusiasm for “ephemera.” (That’s the sort of thing you find at the Victoria Book and Paper Show of antique and collectible printed items at the Mary Winspear Centre, Sunday, Oct. 24 – www.vimacs.ca).
We made our way to Kilshaw’s back room where, on deeply worn wooden floors, the “stuff” is stacked to the ceiling.
Preparations were afoot for the Oct. 21 sale, which will feature about 450 lots of Canadian and European art and plenty of jewelry.
“I’m the only woman auctioneer,” she said, implying a personal interest in jewelry. “And no one ever hurt their back lifting a diamond ring.”
It’s a choice selection from the 1,500 artworks that Kilshaw’s sells every year. Viewing is free, Monday 1 to 5 p.m., Tuesday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday 7 to 9 p.m. and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Doors open for the sale at 5:30 p.m. and the first lot will be offered at 6 p.m. See you there.
Kilshaw’s Auctioneers Ltd., 1115 Fort St., 250-384-6441, www.kilshaws.com