Opinion
2 min

St Charles Tavern chandeliers to go up for auction

Small pieces of Toronto’s gay past expected to sell for more than $400 each

Three chandeliers that used to grace the St Charles Tavern’s ceiling are about to go on offer, courtesy of Waddington’s. Credit: Courtesy of Waddington's

I often think that I arrived in Toronto 10 years too late, when I hear stories of some of the iconic gay and lesbian clubs that flourished during our community’s formative years. I was lucky enough to hang out at The Rose in Cabbagetown a few times (accompanied by a lesbian, as per house rules) and get hit on for the very first time at Colby’s, predecessor to Five and now a looming monolith of condos.

But so many friends have told me about the St Charles Tavern, the grande dame of gay pubs that lit up Yonge Street in the 1970s and ’80s. It sounds like it was the gay equivalent of Cheers, a real-life Boston pub immortalized on the small screen by Ted Danson, Shelley Long and Woody Harrelson. The seats were comfy, the bartenders chatty and the clientele ranged in age from barely legal to nearly dead.

The St Charles may be long gone, but a little piece of its rich, kitsch history has resurfaced. Three beautifully preserved chandeliers that used to grace the tavern’s ceiling are about to go on offer courtesy of Waddington’s, Toronto’s oldest auction house. Established in 1850, this venerable institution is renowned for showcasing everything from chi-chi-poo-poo antiques to eclectic private collections that rarely change hands.

This pristine trio is just a small part of an estate auction for the late William “Billy” Jamieson. Billy was, to say the least, an eclectic collector. I was fortunate enough to attend one of this treasure hunter’s infamous loft parties while accompanying Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky on an interview tour. For the uninitiated, Jodorowsky is considered by many to be the grandfather of gory horror films, after his seminal 1973 film The Holy Mountain. Billy’s morbid collection of shrunken heads, bizarre art and an actual electric chair was the perfect destination for this pioneering director.

Billy himself was quite a character. He and his punk-goddess paramour, Jessica Lindsay Phillips, threw massive parties at their incredible Wellington Street loft, with its soaring ceilings and magnificent terrace. Sadly, Billy died of a heart attack in 2011, and now many of his prized possessions are seeking new homes. Waddington’s decorative-art specialist, Sean Quinn, is particularly excited about the chandeliers making a reappearance on the scene, as he was well acquainted with them in their original home.

“I remember them hanging over my head,” Quinn says. “It was the ’80s, and Deco was very hot. There were, I think, 12 of them. They’re the height of Deco and are quite unusual. I don’t know where you’d see them these days.”

The fixtures truly are stunning. The frame is brass and tiered like an upside-down wedding cake, with frosted glass sections and unusual glass veining. Quinn says the auction house has placed an estimate of $300 to $400 per piece on them, but he believes the final price will be higher.

There are other one-of-a-kind pieces on offer for the April 29 auction, many from Billy’s vast collection, as well as curios like the declaration of knighthood for Upper Canada defender Sir Isaac Brock and a slice of Jumbo the elephant’s tusk; Jumbo was killed on Canadian soil in a train accident.

But the most bizarre object is one that has haunted my dreams for half a decade. During our tour of Billy’s loft, we were forbidden to film or take pictures of his collection. At first I thought this was because of the shrunken heads, but then Billy showed us the pride of his collection: an animated corpse, seated naked in a vintage barber’s chair, that he assured me is covered with real human skin.

Well, it turns out that Billy was just teasing me. Mark Prent’s The Incurable Romantic is also on the block. And yes, Quinn swears that it’s 100 percent artificial.