Portrait of a Passionate Collector

Sean Murphy, whose historic bottles and pottery line the north wall of the Paris Museum, can remember exactly when he became a collector. He was 14 years of age. His father took him to a dump in the woods near the family cottage in Underwood Ontario (about 20 km north of Kincardine). They searched for treasures. Sean found an old gold pocket watch, some early pop bottles and a few blue turn-of-the-century shampoo bottles. He was hooked. His father took him to more rural dumps, a riverbed, then a farm auction. He bought his son the 1969 classic Bottles in Canada by Doris and Peter Unitt.

The teenager turned his bedroom into a museum filled with bottles and pottery. “That is what you find in rural dumps and farm sales,” he explained.

Forty-seven years later, Sean’s collection of stoneware and bottles — from China Russia, India, Chile, the U.S. and Canada — fills his entire basement. He estimates the number at 500. The book his father bought him has grown into a library of 160 volumes about bottles and earthenware. He has developed a transcontinental network of fellow collectors.

Since retiring from his job as a technician at the nuclear division of Ontario Power Generation, Sean has devoted more time to auctions and sales, acquired more knowledge about antiques and retained all of his passion for searching for historic bottles and stoneware.

“Half the pleasure is in the hunt,” he says. “The other half is learning where it was made, who the original owner was and how it fits in the history of the region.”
The Paris area — as far south as the U.S. border — is the second-best area in the province for bottle collecting because it was settled in the 18th century. The best area is eastern Ontario because it was settled first.

He has paid as much as $1,200 for a single bottle in cash and trade; $900 for cash alone. Right now, prices are dropping because young people aren’t interested in antiques. But the cycle will change, Sean says.

He plans to sell off the majority of his collection when he and wife Sharon, a PMHS board member, downsize. He has already begun paring, trading 5 bottles for example for one he really wants.

Sean enjoys sharing his knowledge with members of the museum. He gave a talk entitled “Pottery of Paris” when he and Sharon joined the museum four and a half years ago. It proved so popular that the board asked him to deliver an updated version at its 2017 annual general meeting. Once again, the audience listened attentively and responded positively.

Today, he is less hungry to acquire new artifacts than to delve into the knowledge they bring. “Collecting is like opening a door,” he says. “It leads to history.”

– Carol Goar