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BEHIND THE SCENES: Joe and Anita Robertson’s art collection going to auction

Niagara-on-the-Lake Local's Mike Balsom takes us behind the scenes

In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.

These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here

Today's spotlight is on's Mike Balsom, whose story 'Joe and Anita Robertson’s art collection going to auction' was published on Nov. 16.

Here is the original story if you need to catch up:

Important works of art from the collection of Joe and Anita Robertson, who died along with their 24-year-old daughter, Laura, in a plane crash in rural Maine in August 2018, are going up for auction.

Joe Robertson earned an undergraduate degree from Carleton University followed by an MBA from Harvard. With his business partner Carman Adair, he built up Arcona Health Inc. into a national dental supply company before selling it in 1998.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake residents were well-known for their philanthropic contributions to many charities both in Niagara and beyond. In particular, they had a passion for culture, supporting the non-profit MusiCares fund and Chorus Niagara. They also contributed significantly to the campaign to fund the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines. The space known as Robertson Hall is named in their honour. 

Visitors to the Robertsons’ stately Old Town home may have been impressed by their art collection. On the other hand, as NOTL realtor Doug Widdicombe points out, the art fit so seamlessly into their home that nothing stood out as out of the ordinary. 

“I don’t think I ever even noticed their art,” admits Widdicombe, senior vice president of sales at Sotheby’s International Realty, who holds the listing for the Robertsons’ home. Widdicombe was also a close friend of the Robertsons’ for a number of years. “There was nothing that jumped out as loud and brassy,” he adds. “To me, that home is the quintessential example of one that is always in style. Everything was so tastefully done throughout the house, including their choice of art.”

“It’s a large, grandiose home,” says Rob Cowley, art specialist and president of auction house Cowley Abbott. “But you really felt that the artwork was passionately chosen, and also well-presented. Everything fit the room so well and supported a warm and inviting home. The choices seemed to have been made by the collector, not by a hired designer.”

The Robertson collection is being made available in two different formats. Five lots of their work are being sold via a live auction to be held at Cowley Abbot’s Toronto location on Dec. 6. The rest of the collection, 21 separate pieces, is being offered through an online auction. Cowley estimates that between the two groupings of art the proceeds from the sale could total close to $1 million. 

There’s a focus on Canadian art in the collection, with the live auction including some groupings from significant Canadian artists. 

“Their family room just off their entrance foyer presented so well the works of Jean Paul Lemieux,” Cowley explains. “It also had a wonderful canvas from Jack Bush, Sunset at Port Loring. That artist was more celebrated for his work in abstraction, but he was also an incredible representative painter. It’s a fantastic, calming dockside scene.”

The Lemieux piece, Femme en noir, is estimated to be worth between  $150,000 and $200,000, while Cowley expects Sunset at Port Loring to fetch between $25,000 and $35,000.

In addition, there is a set of four prints from William J. Bennett, each a view of Niagara Falls. The set was actually split up within the house, with two lining a hallway between the family room and the kitchen, and the others displayed in another hallway. The four aquatints together are estimated at between $15,000 and $20,000.