“When I found this,” whispered Gerry Davie, “I knew that it would be one of my most important finds.” And, when he showed it to me, I knew his story needed to be told, but in his own way and time. Gerry, a highly respected antiques and collectibles dealer in Vancouver who specialized in ephemera, was a regular at many of the local flea markets and antique shows. Known for his good instincts and gumption, Gerry was also quite the raconteur with a loyal following.
He had initially reached out in 2013 while at Vancouver’s Retro Antiques and Collectible Fair. “I have a collection of amazing photographs,” Gerry said. “And I think it will make for a real interesting story to tell.”
Gerry invited me to his house in North Vancouver to view the collection in person. The exterior of his home, which he shared with his wife Laura, was ordinary looking. Inside–a different story. Years of buying and selling antiques gave their home a cozy museum-like quality.
A large original framed photograph of the iconic Lions Gate Bridge under construction in the late 1930s was just one of many pieces of art that caught my eye as I entered their home. Next came the solid wood craftsman living room furniture. With a classic design informed by its history, it was sturdy and a bit clunky, but incredibly inviting and comfortable. It reminded me of Gerry. He was big and robust looking, but once you knew him you were immediately drawn in by his kind and gentle nature, his passion for the past, and his ability to tell a great story.
Tucked away by the wall was a basket full of well-worn vintage wooden buoys. Laura said that it was not unusual for Gerry to take on odd jobs or come home with strange stuff. “Like the time I took a condemned ship back to Taiwan,” laughed Gerry, “It was a dramatic comedy but that is for a different story.” Laura was a bit more pragmatic, “Once, in the early 80s, he purchased all the equipment from a YMCA Camp up at Stave Lake in BC. He bought the entire camp, 10 canoes, stoves, tents, Melmac dishes, food, and stainless steel appliances. Most of it he would eventually sell and find a new home for, but not this stuff from Hanne Wassermann.”
Around the corner, on a large oak table were several tongue and groove oak drawers filled with layers of letters, cards, books, and memorabilia—all meticulously preserved and organized. It was in his kitchen, however, that I truly began to understand the magnitude and importance of his prized collection.
In a handcrafted cedar box on a small pine table were hundreds of vintage black and white photographs from the 1920s and 1930s, each carefully separated by pieces of acid-free paper. Ready with coffee, notebook, and a tape recorder, I settled in to hear the full story.
“Twenty-seven years ago the phone the rings,” Gerry said. “It was 1986.” He remembers because he wrote it down. “I answered the phone and there was this guy who said that he had heard that I hauled stuff away. He was clearing a house and needed stuff taken to the dump.” At the time, Gerry was busy and not in a hurry to take on another job.
“I am not sure how that guy got my phone number,” recalled Gerry. Back then, Gerry who was 38 and married with three kids, did odd jobs with his pick-up truck to earn extra money. “I was doing another job at the time and tried to put the guy off for two weeks but ended up going the next day as he was quite insistent.” When he arrived, the man had everything packed up and ready to go. Gerry charged him $50 for the job.
“I loaded the stuff up into the truck to take away,” said Gerry, “but being a good scrounger, I brought it home first. To my surprise I found cut glass perfume bottles with 14k gold tops, a gramophone in the shape of Kodak camera, and a beautiful pocket watch with numbers that rotated around the hands.” Gerry loved the watch and kept it, but sold everything else. He was just starting to get into buying and selling.
“A few days later, the man called again,” Gerry said. “The guy asked if I would take away another load…this time everything was in garbage bags and he asked if I could take it all for whatever I could sell it for.”
The man, Gerry found out, was the nephew of the woman who had lived in the house for many years. She had recently passed away (predeceased by her husband) and he had come from New York to deal with her estate. In a hurry to clear out the house, he likely did not pay close attention to what he was packing up.
Gerry on the other hand, had learned to go through things before throwing them away. In these garbage bags, were hundreds of signed photographs, letters from European nobility, cards, manuscripts and so much more that represented a snapshot into the life of a woman who had left Austria and eventually made her way to British Columbia (BC) in the early 1940s. Her name was Hanne Wassermann Walker.
“Once I got all the stuff, and over the initial shock, I put it away and then every six months or so I would go through it. And, every time I realized how beautiful and special this collection was. I could also see how innovative and creative the woman was.”
Gerry did not know what to think about the signed photographs, which were mostly of Hanne in different poses, but he knew that they were important and spent a lot of time researching them. Turns out the photographer was Trude Fleischmann, one of the leading portrait photographers of celebrities, intellectuals, and artists (e.g., Karl Kraus, Albert Einstein) of that time. There were also other photographs by well-known European photographers such as Rudolf Koppitz and Dora Kallmus (Madame D’Ora). Why the man would throw all of this away baffled Gerry, but the nephew likely had no idea about her life before moving to Canada.
Hanne was born Hanne Hermann on May 13, 1892 and grew up in Vienna, Austria where she married her first husband and took his name to become Hanne Wassermann. He died during the First World War but she kept his name. She was a dancer, gymnast, and somewhere along the way ended up modeling for Fleischmann as well as other established photographers in Europe at that time. It would appear that Hanna had led quite the life as a child of privilege and was actively involved in the artistic community.
In the early 40s, Hanne met and married George Walker, an Anglican Minister from England, and they moved to rural Squamish in BC. After a year, they moved to North Vancouver and then finally settled in West Vancouver. “She became trained as a massage therapist,” according to Gerry who found letters written to Hanne from people from all over the world, including the actress Hedy Lamarr and Princess Helena of Greece, thanking her for “treatments.” He also found an unpublished manuscript for her own therapeutic movements “Gymnastik Methode” and metal printing plates for flip cards that she used to teach people her exercises.
Hanne’s life intrigued Gerry, he spoke to people who knew her but they were also unaware of her life in Europe. But what really intrigued Gerry were the photographs. Hundreds of black and white images, mostly of Hanne. Some were of her dancing and exercising, others of her posing, and there was even one of her in the nude.
Gerry learned that these photographs were highly collectible and quite valuable. In 2011, the Wein Museum in Vienna Austria held an art exhibit of Fleischmann’s work called A Self Assured Eye. Gerry and Laura attended the exhibit in person and quickly realized that his collection of signed photographs was substantially larger. It was at that point that he knew it was time to do something.
Initially he wanted to see if an art gallery would be interested in mounting an exhibit, but when that didn’t work Gerry changed course. In 2019 he consigned the entire collection with Bjarne Tokerud (a rare book dealer) who brokered the sale of the entire collection to the University of British Columbia’s Rare Books and Special Collections department.*
“I was shocked when Gerry said he wanted to sell it all,” said Laura. “I had been bugging him for 30 years to find a buyer. But he was finally ready to let it go and was thrilled that it would stay local, and I was happy for him.”
Gerry’s find was indeed special and incredibly important, especially for Gerry and his family. It is a testament to his great instincts, and incredible resourcefulness, that this collection will be preserved and appreciated for years to come. Sadly, Gerry passed away on May 15, 2020. However, like Hanne’s photographs and memorabilia, Gerry’s legacy and stories will also now live on.
Reprinted with permission from Canadian Antiques & Vintage magazine. For subscription information to Canada’s only national antiques and vintage publication, please call toll-free 1.866.333.3397.
*The entire collection is available to be viewed at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections, but due to COVID it can only be accessed remotely at this time.