Elleke and Willem Claassen—56 Years of Passion
Elleke and Willem are passionate, experienced practitioners of an ancient and proud tradition of the antiques trade. Their journey started in the early nineteen sixties and continues almost sixty years later.
As a young woman, Ballet was an important part of Elleke's life. In the kind and capable hands of Margriet Franken, a pupil of Martha Graham, Elleke's love for dance and all art was nurtured. This love of art and expression led Elleke to pursue education in history and the fine arts in England and the Netherlands. Back home, she was offered a job as a tour guide in France, where she met her husband Willem, a fellow Dutchman. Willem had a similar 'spark' for art and antiquities, fostered from working in an antique restoration shop. He was first inspired to pursue carpentry as a young man at a seminary in Cadier en Keer, in the south of Holland. While the religious pursuit didn't last, the carpentry did. When the pair met in France, Willem was working as a wood buyer, further deepening his knowledge of the field.
The spark they shared, their love of antiquities and art (and each other), combined into a deep, lifelong passion that still burns today. They married in 1965 and started collecting, restoring and trading objects together.
They built their first house together in the south of Holland that had an antiques and restoration work shop attached. By 1967 they had their first two children who were in tow for their many travels throughout Europe in search of treasure. The antiques trade was at its zenith. Major antiques shows were happening throughout Europe. Quality antiques were very much in fashion, the antique dealers were young and bohemian and there was a general hunger for knowledge. There were older antiques dealers too, who were happy to pass on their knowledge to their eager disciples. The seventies was a decade of interest in all art forms, including music, dance and theatre. The antiques shows were a place for artists and lovers of art to get together, and rare items were sold to museums and collectors alike. The seventies also brought their third child.
By 1978 Willem and Elleke had realized their dream of being able to buy a manor house in England, and they bought the gorgeous Elizabethan Holverston Hall near Norwich, England. Their trade thrived. They were still operating an antiques store in the Netherlands, and they now had the ability to take part in important shows in London. As their fame and fortune grew, so did the toll of endless labour. Willem wanted a change of pace and scenery, but Elleke was happy in England. Willem brought Elleke on some exploratory trips to Western Canada, and the family moved to Calgary in 1983 with countless antiquities in tow.
Oil had brought a lot of wealth to Alberta, and with that wealth came an interest in the arts. Oil executives started buying antiques for ranch homes and corporate offices, and Elleke was hired to decorate with art. Elleke would also accompany select clients on buying trips in Europe, where her extensive network was instrumental to bringing hard to find pieces to North America.
Interest was building from New York to Dallas, and Willem and Elleke relocated to the Toronto area to be more centrally located. Not only did they send numerous shipping containers east, but in true Claassen fashion, Willem bought a school bus, ripped the seats out, loaded up more antiques along with the dogs and family, and another adventure began. A house that could display the antiques could not be found, so the family settled on a wonderful property in Goodwood, Ontario, and started building a Georgian style home. Antiques shows became the sales vehicle for the business. Willem and Elleke would load a large trailer full of treasure and averaged over 6 shows per year. The shows were spread out, with some of the major ones hosted in Miami, New York, Dallas, Nashville, New England, and sometimes closer to home like Toronto and Montreal. Most other dealers also travelled the same circuit, and loyal fans of the shows would return each year. Willem estimates he traveled over 150,000km annually. That works out to about 3 trips around the world!
With an aging client base, the antique show circuit started a rapid decline, and by 2003 they were becoming rare. Like other antique dealers, Willem and Elleke started focusing on their existing clientele. Slowing down was not on the menu however, and the couple acquired a lovely summer home in the south of France in the rolling hills that look out to the Pyrenees. Being close to water was also a dream, and in 2018 they sold their home in Goodwood and settled on the St. Lawrence near Kingston. After 56 wonderful crazy years in Antiques, the question of how to preserve treasure was to be answered.
Passing the torch.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Value is an agreement between owners and would be owners. How do you know that something is so good that will stand the test of time?
The fact that there are items in the world that have been preserved by countless generations for hundreds of years is uniquely human. There is elegant meaning in the idea that no one has thrown a certain piece away ever, simply because it was too unique, well made, and beautiful. How many of the things we produce today will stand the same test of time?
A philosophy that many antique dealers share is that you don’t actually own any of these things. They were here before you and they will be here long after you’re gone. You don’t actually own any of it. You are merely the guardian of the item for a generation or two. You get to preserve it, and in exchange the item can teach you about history, bring you joy, and conjure the spirit of the past. The same curiosity and wonder are the feelings that draw us to a museum. What is truly wondrous is that most of these items were once exclusively in the domain of the rich and powerful. The world is growing up and relative wealth is now in the hands of the people. We can all have a bit of history.
In the past, an aging antique dealer would have passed on the business to a young antique dealer, but there are very few young antique dealers left. Many of the stocks of aging antique dealers are being redistributed via auction houses like Sotheby’s, but unless you are familiar with the auction world you will never see any of it. Younger audiences use technology to navigate the world, but the antiques trade by its very nature has never been particularly tech savvy.
In the spring of 2021 Willem and Elleke assembled a small team of young talent to catalog and photograph every piece in the collection. Items are in the home, the shop, and even in a church that has been converted to a warehouse. The idea is to build the best antiques site on the web, and to provide the best educational information via social media. Currently we can photograph about 50 pieces per day, and we average about 30 descriptions per day. We estimate that there are about 5000 pieces in the collection, but who is counting?
The torch is being passed. Not in a traditional way but very much in a modern way. Do have a look and find your own treasure.