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The Collectors

Local collectors Brian Imeson, Zubin Gillespie and Robert Kokotailo have made the kind of sacrifices that would make most of us cringe. They’ve dedicated themselves to finding some of the most unique and rare treasures available in the world, and their goal is to pass on a bit of that passion to you.

Glass Déco

When you first approach Brian Imeson’s store, Circa, two things immediately come to mind—how small it is, and how beautiful. The front window that makes up one of the store’s walls brings in enough natural light to make the translucent blues, greens and magentas of the lamps and dishes fill the eye.

It’s clear he’s a man who knows glass.

But back in 2004, Imeson was an executive—one of the top people of Minit Canada, an international chain of retail stores. He ran 90 shops and had a six-figure salary. One day, he shocked everyone around him when he decided to give it all up and open a small vintage glass store in Inglewood.

“It was a tough decision, to walk away from the prestige, the money,” he says. “But I knew I’d get to do something I love—I’d get to collect some of the most interesting glass art in the world.”

Glass had always attracted Imeson. He had been collecting contemporary pieces for years, but the European pieces from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, what some regard as the pinnacle period of art glass production, remained unknown to him. That is, until he wandered through an antique shop in Toronto nearly a decade ago, and fell in love with a hot pink Swedish bowl. “The lines were so clean and organic and sensual,” he says, “It was very sexy.” After bringing it home, he starting researching the piece, becoming more and more intrigued with the style of art. When guests visiting his house were also enchanted by the bowl, he realized there was a demand. To locate more pieces, he began making trips to England, and his successful finds convinced him to start a store of his own.

Though he still goes overseas once or twice a year, Imeson now relies on other collectors met during his travels, dealers sharing the same interest for art glass. These “pickers,” as they are known, have become his eyes and ears in Europe. They help him hunt down pieces, sometimes acting on his leads and sometimes acting on their own. It’s all very confidential and secretive, with their names and the stores they visit kept under lock and key, but Imeson does mention that his pieces come from all over Europe. And it was one of these pickers that gave Imeson access to one of the rarest collections in the world.

Last January, he received an email from one of his sources in Germany, who wrote simply, “I’ve got some pieces you will want to buy.” The source explained that he had stumbled upon a glass gold mine during an estate auction in Venice. After looking at pictures, Imeson was hooked. “The previous owner had been a former vintage glass collector,” he says, naming off a list of designers and studios: “Seguso. Cenedese. Vistosi. Salviati,” equivalents to the Guccis, Armanis and Chanels of the glass world. For whatever reason, the collection had remained in storage for nearly 50 years, all perfectly labeled, and in relatively excellent condition. “They were dusty and dirty,” Imeson says, “but considering these pieces were almost half a century old, they’re essentially brand new.” There’s a sense of pride and wonder in his voice as he notes, “a collection of this size and calibre is a once in a lifetime find.”

Adventures in Weaving

In the middle of the Indian state of Rajasthan, sheep and camels meander along desert plains, women’s faces proudly adorn henna tattoos, and homes with thatched roofs have walls covered in a plaster of clay, cow dung and hay to keep out termites. Many have not encountered Westerners in the 50 years since the British left, so when Zubin Gillespie, a 6’6″ antique collector from Calgary, comes riding in on his ‘59 motorcycle, he causes a stir.

“It’s a little uncomfortable when 500 people circle around you,” Gillespie, owner of the Buhran Gallery says, laughing good naturedly. He spends half the year travelling around the world searching for unique historic pieces to bring back to his gallery to sell, and for him, the more remote the town the better the stuff he can find.

At age 54, Gillespie has been in the antique business for the past 15 years. His previous background as a piano technician has given him the skills he’s needed to do his own antique restorations. He does the majority of the work on location so that he has access to the same types of woods. He likes working with his hands, likes getting to know the soul of the piece he’s chosen. And for Gillespie, travelling to other parts of the world is therapeutic—a way of returning to simple connectedness.

Last February, he travelled to Afghanistan, a country he’s visited since 1991. Gillespie says Afghans are the most honest people to deal with in the world, and in fact, when he was first getting acquainted with the country, a family had their sons take turns acting as his guide and translator. The last time he was in town was to attend the younger son’s wedding. While there, he also planned to search for pre-Russian carpets which are becoming increasingly scarce. While he was perusing through shops, riots over the Danish cartoons showing images of Muhammad broke out.

“I just happened to be there when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets,” he says, his tone serenely matter of fact. “There were fire bombs that shook the building. I stepped out for a moment, and got hit with a brick,” he says pointing to his chin. “I helped the owner put up duct-tape around the door and windows, and then there was nothing else to do but business.” He found 80 pieces during that trip. “You have to be willing to go to dangerous or inaccessible places to find rare things,” he explains simply.

Though he almost always travels alone, this past year, Gillespie brought along his store manager and long-time friend, Kim Fedor, on two trips with him to China. Fedor, who thought she knew what to expect, laughs at how overwhelming the trip was. “Zubin is so enthusiastic!” she says. “We were literally looking day and night for pieces, leaving no stone unturned.” When asked if he could ever see himself retiring, Gillespie’s voice booms out, “I won’t ever retire! I couldn’t imagine living in one place for a long period of time,” to which Fedor cuts in with, “That’s because you’ve got the travel bug.”

Exquisite Rarities

While shopping at an antique store in Hamilton, Calgary Coin and Antiques owner, Robert Kokotailo noticed a faded, grey coat. Small enough to fit a child, it had 11 buttons running down the centre, and looked like a cast-off costume from a play. Though it was only listed at $4,500, Kokotailo knew the Confederate Army jacket from the Civil War was worth a small fortune.

“Each of these buttons is worth $100 on their own,” Kokotailo says as he points to worn metal-like buttons with raised letter “Rs” in the centre. He estimates that the Rifleman’s jacket is worth up to $25,000. “The seller was not in tune with what it was worth,” he says.

Kokotailo, who’s been in the business for the past 20 years, specializes in ancient and medieval coins—a passion since he was 13. In the ‘70s, the then 20-year-old tried unloading some duplicates of coins that he had accumulated, but finding no dealer would take them, he decided to try and sell them to private collectors himself. “I was a vest pocket dealer,” he jokes. His collection grew to such an extent that he opened his own store, now located in the city’s downtown, which also carries antique china, meteor pieces, tools from primitive man and other historical items.

Normally visiting as many as 18 coin shows a year across North America and England, Kokotailo calls himself an opportunist, explaining that he doesn’t go out looking for anything specifically, but instead lets things come to him. At these coin shows he can look at 10,000 pieces over a period of four days, but will usually only return with about 100. His trained eye allows him to be able to pick out which coins are valuable. He’s usually able to quickly identify time period and country of origin, though certain coins require research.

In the back of his store there is a room lined with books with titles like Coins of the Roman Empire, and Medieval European Coinage. Kokotailo says he’s got about 500 volumes that he relies on “extensively.” His accumulated knowledge has made him a source of expertise to others around the world. If you google Kokotailo’s name, pages of coin discussion groups pop up.

For Kokotailo, joining in on these types of discussions doesn’t require a second thought. “It’s what I do,” he says, though for better or worse, he gets flooded with thousands of questions a year from people seeking his opinion. He modestly states that his respected status just happened gradually. Kokotailo maintains that for him, at the end of the day, it’s simply about the thrill of the chase. In this regard, he’s like Gillespie and Imeson: a true collector, someone seeking the real treasures—the ones with great stories, steeped in culture and invariably hard to find.

Where To Go:

Buhran Gallery
802 – 16 Ave SW

Calgary Coin and Antiques
1404 Centre St SE

1224A – 9 Ave SE
290-0145—Laura Pellerine

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