Tucked on the 27th floor of a bank tower in downtown Toronto, Sprott Asset Management’s offices are crowded with aboriginal sculptures, Group of Seven paintings, suits of armour and rare books. A custom–made gold coin with a face value of $1 million greets visitors in the lobby, a reminder of Sprott’s success with investing in precious metals. Other artifacts similarly commemorate the firm’s accomplishments. Eric Sprott, the company’s founder and CEO, purchased a Van Gogh, alongside several other impressionist paintings, when the firm first went public. He started buying Inuit art when he ran a securities firm, acquiring a carving for each underwriting. (There were 53 in 1993 alone.) As his company became increasingly successful, Sprott widened his collection, acquiring works by the Group of Seven, Alex Colville and Jean–Paul Riopelle.
Sprott can now chart his successful career through his acquisitions. The art has become part of his company’s brand; Sprott once even brandished a 17th–century German battle axe in a meeting. Colour blind, Sprott admits he cannot fully appreciate the beauty of the objects he purchases, but he views the Canada–heavy art collection as a way to reinforce his identity with his international clientele. His office now has a room entirely dedicated to works by the Group of Seven; another, known as “the Chief’s Room,” houses a good chunk of his First Nation’s art collection.
Known as a shrewd businessman, if something of a contrarian, Sprott is an indefatigable “gold bug,” backing the metal through the commodity crash in 2008 and into the current bull market. He manages his art like a stock portfolio, weighing how each acquisition fits within the broader collection. And both his fortune and his collection have grown thanks to his ability to make snap judgments involving millions of dollars.
“It has to do with having money, first of all. You can’t collect if you don’t have money,” says Sprott, seated in his company’s “Money Room,” which houses his rare coins. “It’s a little bit spur–of–the–moment in many cases. You know you’re feeling flush or something — like you could probably sell me something today.”
For ages, sociologists and psychotherapists have tried to explain why people collect — a seemingly pointless but universal pursuit. Back in 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen suggested the rich, who no longer need to work, seek out activities that have the appearance of utility but really distinguish them from the working class. And the collections of Canada’s rich, which run the gamut from curious to curiouser, certainly set them apart.
Chuck Fipke, the British Columbia diamond magnate, collects and breeds racehorses for a hobby. Five of his horses have won Group One races, placing them among the sport’s elite. His collection also includes a mare fathered by the famous Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and a stallion descended from Northern Dancer, the greatest sire of the 20th century. Fipke rides himself, and counts his horses among his nearest and dearest friends.
“I have six kids too,” says Fipke. “You don’t have a favourite. You love them all.”
Fipke loves animals large and small; he operates a charity promoting awareness about illegal trafficking in wildlife. And he’s not the only wealthy collector whose acquisitions also form the heart of their philanthropic activities.
Michael Potter started the flying museum Vintage Wings, which restores, maintains and flies nineteen historical aircraft. The collection started out of personal interest, but it evolved into a civic service. Potter has owned and flown aircraft for four decades, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago, when he moved to a supporting role in Cognos, the software business he founded, that he got the idea to acquire a Spitfire.
“There was a transition early on,” says Potter of transforming his passion into a public collection. “I quickly realized that this could and should be something that I was interested in growing — but only as a means to communicate to the Canadian public what these airplanes mean.”
While Potter’s collection is a relatively recent one, Alfred Bader has collected art since he was a child.
“I am an inveterate collector,” he says. “It may be a sickness, and it began with stamps at eight, drawings at 10, paintings at 20, and rare chemicals at 30.”
In a sense, his success as a retailer of chemicals stemmed from his passion for collecting. Bader founded Aldrich, which became Sigma–Aldrich, today the world’s largest supplier of research chemicals.
He purchased his first painting in an internment camp in Quebec. Born in Austria, he was sent to England by his mother in 1938 to flee Nazi persecution. Two years later, he was labelled an enemy alien and deported to Île–aux–Noix, Que., under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer.
One of Bader’s fellow inmates at the camp was a painter. The officers furnished him with materials so that he could paint pictures of their wives. Bader commissioned a portrait of himself for a dollar to send to his mother. But when he posted it to a friend in New York, he received the news that she had died in a concentration camp. The painting was returned to him. It became the foundation of a highly esteemed art collection.
Bader built his reputation as a collector by unearthing works that others have missed. Twice, he bought paintings with unclear authorship and had them recognized as a Rembrandt. He purchased the painting Head of a Man in a Turban for $125,000. When he donated it to the Agnes Etherington gallery at Queen’s University, it was valued at $16 million. He has given two Rembrandts to Queen’s — as well as a castle in Sussex, England.
The collection might have been shared with a different school, if Bader had attended his first choice for university. When Bader was in the internment camp, he studied to take the McGill matriculation exams, but the school had already filled its quota for admitting Jewish students.
“McGill wouldn’t accept me,” says Bader. “Luckily Queen’s did — lucky for me and lucky for Queen’s.”
Like Bader, Allan Slaight’s collection was similarly driven by childhood experience. When Slaight, who once oversaw the largest chain of radio stations in the country, was an eight–year–old boy, he encountered a box of magic tricks at a department store. He talked his parents into giving him the set for Christmas. The walls of Slaight’s home are now lined with thousands of tomes — thought to be one of the most comprehensive records of magic tricks on the continent. “Sometimes, the ingenuity is breathtaking — the brilliance of the inventions,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2005.
On the walls of Slaight’s home also hangs a poster from a 1948 show he performed in Moose Jaw, Sask., as a travelling magician. He once considered turning magic into his profession. Instead, it became a lifelong obsession.
Veblen argued in a capitalist society, status is achieved through conspicuous consumption. Collecting allows the rich to assert oneself through one’s possessions. The size and scope of the collections of the rich reinforce their wealth; their contents hint at their passions. Sometimes, there is also a sense of collecting for collecting’s sake. In addition to his fine–art collection, Sprott’s offices hold a room of “things that I’ve picked up over time.” The list includes guns and armour, or as Sprott says of his carefully curated collection — “crap like that.”