Article by Donna McAlear

he Dundas Collection of Northwest Coast American Indian Art was purported by Sotheby’s to be the last significant field collection of northwest coast art held by a single private collector before 57 objects from it were dispersed by them in October 2006 for slightly more than $7 million (U.S.).1 Since then, the Dundas Collection has been a mainstay of Canadian media reports because of its significance to Canadian heritage and, in particular, the unique conditions of its purchase by a consortium of Canadian philanthropists and three Canadian museums to ensure its repatriation to Canada from Britain.

The day before the New York auction, Sarah Milroy, writing in The Globe and Mail, outlined the Dundas Collection’s stellar provenance and its importance to Tsimshian communities in northern British Columbia and to the broader arena of Canadian heritage and scholarship.2 Held since 1960 by Simon Carey, the great-grandson of Reverend Robert James Dundas (who acquired the entire collection in 1863 from the famous missionary William Duncan), the collection represents a range of cultural production and expression, both ceremonial and artistic, from an early period of aboriginal and European contact, when the conversion of First Nations to Christian paradigms was an imperative of the dominant colonial empire.

1 Simon Houpt, “Native art trove heads home”, The Globe and Mail, Friday, October 6, 2007, sec. A, pp. 1, 6.
2 Sarah Milroy, “The Dundas collection: heritage goes on the block”, The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, October 4, 2006, sec. R, pp. 1, 3.

Carey failed to negotiate a selling price and purchase
terms for this collection in his dealings with a host of
Canadian, British and American museums over decades.
Consequently, the prized collection went to auction, and
the pre-auction anxiety that its pending sale generated
among Canadian museum workers and private dealers
was high. Canadian museums do not typically have a
competitive edge when facing wealthy, international
collectors. The federal government’s Department of
Canadian Heritage, through its Movable Cultural
Property program, provides museums with case-by-case
assistance to repatriate cultural property considered
essential to the Canadian patrimony. However, its annual
budget of just over $1 million is oversubscribed and
inadequate to meet the collecting needs of the country’s
many museums. Such limitations faced by Canadian
museums in the elevated global auction market
prompted Canadian tribal art dealer Donald Ellis to tell
Milroy, “I’m tired of how we behave up here about our
own cultural patrimony. We have this expectation in this
country that the government should fund this entirely.
In the U.S., the museums would be going to the private
buyer for a donation. That’s how you get things done
these days.” 3

Indeed, Ellis’ challenge was taken seriously by four
Canadian philanthropists, and 39 objects were purchased
from Sotheby’s for about $5.5 million (U.S.), indicating
that Canadians are increasingly following the lead of
Americans in aiding museums where government
funding falls short.4 Members of the Thomson family,
relations of the late Kenneth Thomson (a major donor
who recently supported the Art Gallery of Ontario’s
major expansion of its collections and building) came
forward in response to Ellis’ comments. Speaking about
his decision, Mr. [David] Thomson stated, “It would be of
immense relief to me if other wealthy individuals could
step up to the plate and also partake of, and celebrate,
and ultimately preserve Canadian culture. Life is life;
governments make priorities. But, at the end of the day
we’re Canadians – this is a defining moment, and we
need to, all of us, share in it.” 5

The magnitude of this philanthropic action was
reflected in a quickly assembled traveling exhibition
organized by the Royal British Columbia Museum,
Treasures of the Tsimshian from the Dundas Collection. It
opened in March 2007 at the Museum of Northern
British Columbia in Prince Rupert, in traditional
Tsimshian territory, where the collection originated, at
the request of elders and chiefs of the Allied Tsimshian
Tribes. It then toured to the Royal British Columbia
Museum (April 2007), the Art Gallery of Ontario (July
2007) and the Canadian Museum of Civilization
(November 2007). Yet, despite this showcase, intended
to celebrate a successful international repatriation and
a relatively novel partnering of Canadian philanthropists
and public museums in the cultural heritage field, one
intriguing question continued to haunt Treasures of
the Tsimshian on its national tour – who owns the
collections once the tour ends in 2008?

Peter Goddard, writing in the Toronto Star on the
occasion of the exhibition’s opening at the Art Gallery
of Ontario, speculated that because two of the collectors
who contributed about $5 million (U.S.) towards the
acquisition of the collection are Thomson relations from
Toronto with alliances to the Art Gallery of Ontario, this
institution may well become the repository of the
majority of the Tsimshian objects.6 Peter Gessell, writing
in the Ottawa Citizen about the Canadian Museum of
Civilization’s ownership of eight of the objects
purchased at the auction, furthered the debate in his
interview with William White, Director of the Museum
of Northern British Columbia, Prince Rupert. 7 White’s
institution pooled its meager funds with those of the
Royal British Columbia Museum and the Allied
Tsimshian Tribes to purchase a single wooden spoon
with a shaman on top of its handle for $21,000. (U.S.). 8
Thus, the British Columbia consortium, where the
collection’s historical roots are most germane, gained
only one item from the Sotheby’s sale.
The day before the Sotheby’s auction, James Bryant,
a spokesman for the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax
Kw’Alaams and Metlakatla, told Globe and Mail reporter
Milroy, “The sale of these artifacts is ugly and deceitful.
They were taken for nothing, and now they will be sold
in a high-priced auction so that the missionary’s greatgrandson
can get rich.” Echoing what many aboriginal
peoples worldwide believe about cultural property that
was removed from their possession during periods of
colonial occupation and under extreme conditions of
duress, Bryant added, “These things need to come back
to the people that made them in the first place” because
“they hold the history of the tribe that these objects
belonged to.” 9

Bryant’s viewpoint is consistent with the midtwentieth
century repatriation movement and global
activism by aboriginal peoples to regain ownership of
cultural property by seeking the repatriation of
ceremonial objects, human remains and grave goods,
housed in international museums and private
collections, to aboriginal communities. The goal is
restorative; these ‘living’ objects and remains of
ancestors hold symbolic and personal import, and
connections to past community life and ancestors. The
return of cultural property will aid in healing the
longstanding and harmful impacts of colonial
dispossession. Thus, the return of cultural property to
aboriginal communities is seen by many as a more vital
necessity than the more dominant arguments to
preserve a ‘universal’ cultural heritage for all Canadians.
The repatriation movement, as defined by aboriginal
peoples, is clearly a sociopolitical one, connected to
parallel claims for equal human rights, land,
environment, religion, language and education.

Indeed, the legal rights of aboriginal peoples to regain
ownership of cultural property have been increasingly
recognized in law. In Canada, repatriation of cultural
property has been implemented through the treaty
process of self-government. The Nisga’a Final Agreement
(1999) set a precedent for repatriation as a legal
instrument binding on two Canadian museums: the
Royal British Columbia Museum (through provincial law)
and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (through
federal law). The Nisga’a Nation placed 670 cultural
materials held in these museums on their bargaining
agenda, effectively linking repatriation claims to the selfgovernment
process. Another example is Alberta’s First
Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act (2000),
including the Blackfoot First Nations Sacred Ceremonial
Objects Repatriation Regulation (Alberta Regulation

Clearly, private collectors, such as the collectors who
stepped up to purchase the Dundas collection for all
Canadians, are not touched directly by First Nations
communities and politics, and the laws and ethics that
increasingly affect ownership questions related to
cultural property held in public museum collections.
The laws previously mentioned have specific
jurisdictions and applications that target public
museums; private collectors and museums abroad are
exempt. Despite these challenges, aboriginal peoples see
such legal developments as an advancement of their
goals; they indicate growing social awareness that will
promote increased consciousness among the general
populace about repatriation and cultural property
ownership issues. Certainly, at the Royal British
Columbia Museum’s April 2007 opening of Tsimshian
Treasures, seven Tsimshian elders boldly expressed their
views to the new private owners of the Dundas
collection, stating publicly, it “belongs to us.”10
Furthering this movement are First Nations
communities themselves, as indicated by their many
websites which celebrate their legal claims and
repatriation achievements while inviting the
participation of those who wish to join them in
advancing self-determination. One example is the
Skidegate Repatriation and Cultural Committee working
in partnership with the Old Massett Repatriation and
Cultural Committee on behalf of the hereditary leaders
of Haida Gwaii “to plan and co-ordinate when and how
to bring our ancestors and cultural materials home.” 11
Time, patience and further negotiations about who
owns what will eventually determine where the
collection of Tsimshian objects will rest after Tsimshian
Treasures ends its tour at the Canadian Museum of
Civilization in 2008. Formerly known as the Dundas
Collection and long held by one man in Britain, the
collection has returned to Canada. Ironically, it is closer
to Tsimshian territory, but is now more widely dispersed
among a larger group of non-aboriginal owners. William
White is philosophical about the future, stating, “The
shared opinion of all has been that the collection should
be brought back to reside in Prince Rupert after it has
traveled. It is the Creator who will decide if the
collectors feel the same way, too. No one can predict
what the outcome of this exhibit will be. We can only
hope and dream and pray.” 12

Donna McAlear is a cultural consultant and writer, and Director,
Organizational Advancement, Sharon Temple National Historic
Site, Ontario.

1 Simon Houpt, “Native art trove heads home”, The Globe and
Mail, Friday, October 6, 2007, sec. A, pp. 1, 6.
2 Sarah Milroy, “The Dundas collection: heritage goes on the
block”, The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, October 4, 2006, sec.
R, pp. 1, 3.
3 Milroy, p. 3.
4 Recent examples of Canadian philanthropic largesse as it
relates to public museum development are the highly
successful private donor campaigns of the Art Gallery of
Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Asper
family leadership of the National Museum of Human Rights.
5 Houpt, p. 6.
6 Peter Goddard, “National treasures”, Toronto Star, Saturday,
July 21, 2007, sec. E, p. 6.
7 Paul Gessell, “Behind the mask”, Ottawa Citizen, Saturday,
August 11, 2007.
8 Randy Boswell and Rob Shaw, “High bids leave First Nations
with a single wooden spoon”, Times Colonist, Friday, October
6, 2006, sec. A, p. 3.
9 Milroy.
10 Alexandra Gill, “Native leaders vent outrage at opening”, The
Globe and Mail, Monday, April 30, 2007, sec. R, p. 4.
11 Skidegate Repatriation and Cultural Committee.
12 Gessell.

Image: Raven mask, collection of Westerkirk Works of Art, Inc.
Wood with movable beak and eyes
Photograph: Frank Tancredi, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum