By MARSHA LEDERMAN
Saturday, April 13, 2019
The last time Westworld star Louis Herthum and fine art dealer Uno Langmann were together in Langmann's Vancouver gallery, it was the 1990s and the two men had teamed up to find a home for an unlikely discovery Herthum had made in an antique shop in Baton Rouge.
"You called me, I remember," Langmann says, pulling out an old folder with bits of information, including a scrap of orange paper with the original phone message, written by Langmann's assistant at the time. There's Herthum's name, along with a phone number, pager number and two words underlined twice: "extremely urgent."
Herthum, best known these days for playing Peter Abernathy on the hit HBO series, has always had a thing for art. He has uncovered amazing finds at garage sales, antique markets and swap meets. "That was before eBay and Antiques Roadshow screwed it all up," he says.
The two men are seated inside Langmann's fine art and antiques shop, which is as grand and wonder-filled as Herthum remembers it from more than two decades ago. At a George III mahogany tilttop table (circa 1825), under 15foot ceilings, they have reunited to tell The Globe and Mail the amazing story of how their joint efforts ended with the repatriation of several long-forgotten works by a Canadian great.
In June, 1994, the actor, who lives in Santa Monica, travelled to his hometown, Baton Rouge, La., for his 20th high-school reunion.
He was at the point in his career when he could finally afford to satisfy his passion for art, thanks to a regular role on Murder, She Wrote.
With some spending money in his pocket, he visited an antique shop he remembered from his childhood but had not visited before. The shop, in an old house, had beautiful things, but the prices were out of reach, even for a working actor on one of TV's biggest shows.
But way up near the ceiling, Herthum saw something that intrigued him: a series of paintings depicting lumber work in the forest in muted tones, clearly by the same artist. Some were signed "LSH," some just "H." The proprietor said he had bought them from his restorer in St. Louis in the 1960s. For years, they had been rolled up, but the store owner had recently put them on stretcher boards and displayed them.
He fished one down with his long pole and Herthum could see on the back, very light in pencil, "mag" and a date which indicated it was done in either 1909 or 1929.
The painting's dimensions were scribbled on, too, which seemed to indicate that they had been published somewhere.
"I said, 'what do you want for them?' And he said 'uh, $250,' " recounts Herthum, now 62, who is as theatrical a storyteller as his profession might suggest.
"I said, look I think they're fantastic. And I think they may be important," says Herthum, who has no formal art training but over the years has learned to trust his gut.
"Sometimes you just get a feeling.
I had a feeling about these paintings."
Herthum bought the lot for $1,750 and shipped them to Los Angeles.
Back home in Santa Monica, he got out his copy of Davenport's Art Reference & Price Guide. He was looking for an artist who bore the initials "LSH" - that was all he had to go on. He quickly landed on Lawren Stewart Harris.
The description indicated Harris was from Toronto and famous for painting colourful mountain scenes, and even houses, in the snow. It also provided the highest amount received for his work at auction: an incredible $350,000 at the time. Herthum made the assessment that the paintings he had just bought could very well be by this artist. Snow, Canada, LSH - it all seemed to fit, but it was still just a hunch.
"So I was like, okay, we have to make sure that these are Mr. Harris," says Herthum, who had never before heard of Harris - one of the pre-eminent Canadian artists of the 20th century - or the Group of Seven, the landmark collective of painters Harris co-founded.
The next day, Herthum went to the Beverly Hills Public Library, which has an extensive visual-art section, and read whatever he could about Harris. One biography said Harris had gone to Arabia in 1908, commissioned by Harper's to illustrate an article.
"So I went down to the microfiche room, got the 1908 Harper's monthly magazine, going through every page of every edition. I don't know what edition those were in, but I turn a page and there is this stunning illustration of an Arab on a camel and at the bottom was 'LSH' - the same very distinct signature. And it said 'Lawren Stewart Harris.' And I'm like, oh my God, they are Lawren Stewart Harris paintings."
Herthum began contacting auction houses, and while they were interested, they indicated that these were not the kinds of paintings Harris was best known for.
Herthum continued his research. He was determined to find out where his $250 paintings had been published.
"It literally took me about four months between work and being able to take my time to research.
And I finally found this tiny little book that was a biography of Canadian artists," Herthum recounts.
"And it said in 1909, he went to Minnesota, U.S.A., to depict life in the logging camps. And I was like, that's got to be it."
The book described Harris's experiences there as negative and depressing, given how the lumberjacks were treated, and said as a result he returned to Toronto and began painting with vivid colour.
"So I not only knew that they were his last art illustration commission, but they changed his life in a sense," Herthum says.
He went back down to the microfiche room, got out Harper's from 1909 and started going through the issues, month by month. "I come to July, I'm turning the pages, and I turn a page and bang - there's one of my paintings. And I turn another page. Boom, there's another one of my paintings. Turn another page. Four of the seven of my paintings were in the article," he says. "I was ecstatic."
Herthum knew he needed an authority on Canadian art to help him. He asked his Los Angeles dealer for a recommendation.
Without hesitation, the man responded. "Uno Langmann in Vancouver. He's a complete expert on Canadian art."
Herthum phoned Langmann and left the fateful message.
Langmann took it from there.
"I was very excited because we had got all the research done and he knew everything about the paintings so I said, you know, those should be in an institution, because they were not as sellable piecemeal and it would be a shame to split them up that point.
They really should be in the collection," Langmann says.
They both felt Vancouver, where Harris spent the final 30 years of his life, was the right home for the paintings. Langmann contacted the Vancouver Art Gallery, and - very long story short - they made a deal to repatriate the work. They were purchased with the assistance of the Canadian government through the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board and the Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund. The price tag: $75,000 for the group. They snapped a photo of Langmann handing Herthum the cheque; it sits on Langmann's desk to this day.
When asked what they might be worth now, Langmann first says $400,000 to $500,000. Then he says maybe as much as $1-million. Later, he adds that he might even ask $1.5-million for them.
"Stop going up higher," Herthum says with a laugh.
"You know, had you invested the money at that time in B.C. real estate, you would have done all right," Langmann responds.
In 2014, the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted an exhibition, Lawren Harris: Canadian Visionary.
Among the first works in the show were the seven paintings Herthum had discovered in Baton Rouge. The one that first got Herthum's attention - and that he still carries a photo of on his phone - is titled Tramping the Logging Roads from Camp to Camp. The 1909 oil on canvas depicts a man trudging through the snow, surrounded by trees. It looks almost black and white - done in a technique called grisaille, like most of the others, so it could easily be reproduced in the magazine.
It's a preacher, the wall label explained, travelling from camp to camp to spread the gospel.
"In January and February of 1909, Harris took a painting trip to the lumber camps in northern Minnesota with Norman Duncan, a popular writer of adventure books. The two had travelled to the Middle East together a year earlier, Harris providing illustrations to accompany a series of travel articles that Duncan was commissioned to write," read part of the wall label for Tramping it in a Blizzard (1909), a more atmospheric version of Tramping the Logging Roads.
"While at the lumber camps Harris once again made illustrations for Duncan's writing for Harper's, this time observing the winter forests and the raw lifestyle of the lumberjacks. Some of Harris's earliest paintings demonstrate an interest in the northern landscape where the figure is pictured in contrast to the solemnity of the forest."
The lumberjacks intrigued Harris and inspired more work.
Three years later, The Drive (1912), Harris's painting of lumberjacks moving logs downriver, became the first painting the soon-to-befamous Canadian painter sold to the National Gallery of Canada.
A few nights before our interview, Herthum was shooting a new series in a large park in Burnaby and it was snowing. Cast and crew are discouraged from taking photos on set, but Herthum couldn't help himself. The scene out there among the trees in the snow reminded him so much of that painting that now lives at the VAG, a few kilometres from his shoot.
"This is a real photo of us out in the woods. Look at this. It looks exactly like those paintings," he says, showing off the photo on his phone. His fascination for the artwork is evident and intact.
I ask if he ever regrets not keeping the paintings.
"I was very proud to be able to return these to where they belong," he says. "It just made sense that they come here. And I was very proud of the fact that I could be responsible to get these paintings back. The only thing that after that ever made me wish I had kept them was what they're worth now."
Art dealer Uno Langmann, left, and actor Louis Herthum sit in Langmann's art and antiques shop in Vancouver, two decades after they first met to discuss a collection of paintings in Herthum's possession.