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Joe and Anita Robertson’s art collection going to auction

Art experts Cowley Abbott say the collection could fetch as much as $1 Million combined between the live and online auctions next month

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. 

“It felt like both Joe and Anita had their stamp on this collection,” Cowley says. “It really felt like a joint effort between them. That’s usually the case when everything fits so well like it did in this collection. Everyone we have talked to has spoken about how well they worked together, how close they were. That shows in the art.”

Cowley Abbott has worked with the surviving members of the family, Joe and Anita’s sons Clark and Taylor Robertson, who held on to some parts of the collection toward which they felt a personal connection. A portion of the company’s selling commission will be donated to United Way Niagara in
memory of Joe, Anita and Laura, who were great supporters of that organization.

All items up for auction are currently being displayed at Cowley Abbott’s gallery located across from the Art Gallery of Ontario at 326 Dundas Street West in Toronto. The gallery is open to the public for viewing.

The live auction, which also includes other important works outside of the Robertson collection, takes place on Wednesday, December 6 at 4 p.m. at the Globe and Mail Centre, 351 King Sreet East, Toronto. It will also be livestreamed online at, allowing for simultaneous in-person, telephone, absentee and real-time online bidding.

Bidding is open on the online sale of the other 21 items from the Robertson collection from Nov. 27 to Dec.7. Visit to find out more and to view the artwork.

Cowley says that considering the quality and the rarity of some of the pieces, as well as the pre-auction buzz he’s heard over the offerings, he wouldn’t be surprised if the auction results exceed his early estimates. 

“Beyond the value and importance of the collection,” says Cowley, “this is a very important opportunity for our company to tell the story of a family that was so well-loved, so connected, and so supportive of their community where they lived for so many years.”

Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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