The Louis McWhinnie story
As a wee boy, growing up in working class Scotland in the fifties and sixties, we were always collecting something, it was a matter of personal survival, as money was forever in short supply, but, if you had a nice collection of say, German military memorabilia, or rare bird’s eggs, this was widely acknowledged as the equivalent of cold hard cash, a good collection also gave you status in the neighbourhood. A Swan’s egg could be sold for one pound, a Kestrel Falcon’s egg would fetch ten shillings or swapped for a pair of ice skates. An iron cross first class, could be traded for a good second hand bicycle.
With this kind of incentive, we spent a lot of time in public, and school libraries, learning about every bird in the British Isles, and their nesting habits, whether they were a resident or migrant, where and when they laid their eggs, how many eggs in a clutch, and how many clutches a year. As daring young ornithologists, knowledge learnt one season would be passed on to the next, by the time we were thirteen years old, we were oology experts (study of eggs). No place was sacrosanct, we would sneak into bird sanctuaries, national and public parks, private estates, wade waist deep through swamps, climb the highest trees, cliffs, or crawl along the steelwork under railway bridges, just to get that elusive egg, as a matter of fact, many times we had to freeze, (so that train driver did not see us) hang on tight, and hold our breath, as a locomotive, belching hot sooty black smoke, rumbled pass underneath us. When eggs were found, we would take only the finest specimens, the ones that had the most perfect colour, markings, shape and size, we graded them in much the same way an expert would grade stamps, coins, or gemstones, the higher the quality, the higher the price, (yeah! yeah! I know what you are thinking, all eggs look the same! well! they don’t, one only has to look at the variety in hens eggs on the market to understand). It was this early discipline that would help shape my future career as a professional collector.
(sorry to digress, but I just remembered a funny story, I came home one time, after three locomotives had passed by underneath us, I knocked on the door, and my mother answering, looked at me and said, “Oh! Louis is not home at the moment, he is out playing somewhere with his friends,” I stood there, as black as the ace of spades, and replied sheepishly, “but mum!……..it’s me……..your son…….. Louis!”)
I emigrated to Australia in 1971 as a second year apprentice, finished my four year term and decided to stay in Sydney, rather than return to Scotland, the metal skills that I learned in my trade were to come in useful when I decided to manufacture display stands for a living, but I still had that collector instinct, and a desire to see the world, and a long way off as far as setting up a business was concerned. My first trip to South-East Asia was in the late seventies, where I spent about two and a half months, in that time, I picked up a few bits and pieces, some of which were sold to museums and private collectors, who asked me if I could find more material, it all snowballed on from there.
Depending on finances at the time, I made it a point of trying to keep the best pieces for myself, mounting them as I went along, It did not take long for other collectors to take notice my handiwork. For about thirty years now, I visited most countries in South-East Asia, lived with the people, and studied their arts. A lot of my time was spent in Indonesia, where I travelled throughout the archipelago, island hopping from Timor all the way up to Sumatra, and back, whilst staying at most of the islands in between. Over the years, I sadly, watched Indonesian art go from one of the hottest commodities on the planet, to the one least desired. From the mid seventies to early eighties, major institutions were busily building up their South-East Asian acquisitions, it was a feeding frenzy, everyone wanted a piece of the action. I was getting letters from overseas curators desiring rare Ikat textiles, sculpture, bronzes etc., in fact, there was nothing that they did not want. The only drawback was that demand soon outstripped supply, but that was not a problem for the ever resourceful Indonesians, they just began manufacturing their own antiques, in such a way, that they turned out some of the best, and most beautiful fakes ever produced, they were masterpieces of ingenuity, that even carries on to this very day. Many large institutions including private collectors got their fingers burnt big time, so much so, that Indonesian art was dropped like a hot snag at a barbecue, and even now, it has never fully recovered. The Indonesians not only destroyed the integrity of their art for more than a whole generation, but even thirty years later, collectors are still very wary. To avoid being a fellow casualty, it was important, and in my interest to build up a great ethnographic library, visit all the local museums in Asia to see what the genuine pieces looked liked, but most of all, study the artificial patinas used by the Indonesians, such as ways of speeding up oxidation on the surface of bronze and the various tooling and painting techniques used on wood, this knowledge, unbeknown to me, would come in useful later, when I decided to practice restoration. It was only a matter of time before the collecting, the metalwork, and restoration skills all fused together, and a new business was born.
(Just to give you an idea as to how good the Indonesians were at faking things, and still are, I visited a dealer who showed me a very nice Toradjan tomb door. The dealer asked me what I thought of it, being young, naive, and with a bit of an ego, I replied smugly, that it was a very bad copy, the dealer was surprised, and asked me how I knew this. I told him that a tomb door has two different patinas, the inside should be damp and mouldy, whilst the outside maybe gets some lichen, is weathered, or bleached by the sun. This door had the same patina, front and back. The dealer listened carefully to what I had said, and told me to come back in three days time as he had a new shipment of antiques arriving from Sulawesi. Right on schedule, I came back to the shop three days later to see his new stock, and was amazed to see the tomb door on centre stage, the dealer had patinated the door exactly to my specifications, it looked absolutely superb, and authentic, after that, I kept my big mouth shut. )