Two of Vancouver’s oldest mansions changes hands this month

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

Dick Sandwell’s collection of first editions on major voyages goes to auction at Christie’s

John Mackie

CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun Walter Nichol, B.C.’s lieutenant-governor from 1920-26, was the first owner of the mansion built in 1912 at 1402 McRae

CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun 1389 The Crescent was the home of globe-trotting Vancouver engineer Dick Sandwell

CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun The main hall of 1402 McRae, most recently the home of Antoinette Bentley, who fled here from Nazi-occupied Austria.

Two of Vancouver‘s oldest, largest and most beautiful mansions were sold in the last month, marking the end of an era for two of Vancouver‘s most prominent families.

The houses are both Tudor-style mansions built in 1911-12, and sit across the street from each other at the corner of The Crescent and McRae in Shaughnessy (next door to Hycroft, the University Women’s Club).

One belonged to the Bentley family, founders of Canfor, the world’s largest exporter of softwood lumber. The 10,000-square- foot mansion sits on an extraordinary three-lot, 0.9-hectare site that stretches all the way down the west side of McRae to 16th and Granville. It sold for $7 million.

The mansion on the east side of the street belonged to Dick Sandwell of Sandwell Engineering, a major figure in mid-20th century British Columbia. An avid yachtsman and traveller, Sandwell amassed a world-class collection of books by early explorers that is being auctioned off by Christie’s in London on Sept. 21. The sale price of the house isn’t available, but the 7,500-square-foot home was listed for $4,780,900.

Leopold Lionel (Poldi) Bentley died in 1986, but his family kept his house at 1402 McRae until his wife Antoinette died last November. Dick Sandwell died in 1996, but his home at 1389 The Crescent remained in the family until his wife Agnete died in June.

Antique dealers have been called into both houses recently to peruse articles from the respective estates not taken by the families. Eric Cohen of Architectural Antiques picked up some lovely trophies and medals from the Bentley estate.

Antoinette Bentley was a champion equestrian in her native Austria. And therein lies an amazing tale of how the Bentleys were able to escape the Nazis and come to Vancouver in the fall of 1938.

Leopold Bentley’s birth name was Bloch-Bauer; his wife was born Antoinette Pick. They came from affluent Jewish families that were at the centre of Vienna‘s dazzling intellectual culture at the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The great Austrian painter Gustav Klimt did two famous portraits of a relative, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

“The family lived very well, it was all pretty elegant,” says Leopold and Antoinette’s son Peter Bentley, who was born in Vienna in 1930.

Antoinette was renowned in Austria for her equestrian skills.

“She was one of the world’s top dressage riders,” says Peter Bentley. “In her time, females were not allowed in equestrian events in the Olympics. But she won medals against the military officers who were the medal winners in the Olympics. So she was world-class.”

The family’s charmed life in Austria came to an abrupt end when Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Leopold Bloch-Bauer was arrested by the Gestapo, and would probably have died in a concentration camp if not for the intervention of a friend.

“Ironically, the head of the Gestapo knew my mother from equestrian events,” relates Peter Bentley.

“A friend of ours who was a very prominent Catholic in Austria said ‘Do you know who you have in jail?’ He said ‘We’ve got a lot of people in jail.’ So she mentioned my dad’s name. He had him brought to him, they had lunch together and he said ‘I want you out of the country tonight.'”

The family fled Europe for the safety of Canada, which Leopold had visited.

“We got some of our belongings out, and what we did get out he sent straight to Vancouver,” says Peter Bentley.

“My dad loved Canada, he had been here big-game hunting. He’d been in the Rocky Mountains, and he knew of Vancouver. He thought it was a better climate than Calgary, so this is where he wanted to come.”

In Canada, Leopold Bloch-Bauer decided to anglicize his surname to Bentley. His brother-in-law John Pick also came to Vancouver and changed his name to John Prentice. They started a company named Pacific Veneer in 1938, and through a later acquisition acquired the name Canadian Forest Products, which became the name of the entire company in 1944. It was later shortened to Canfor. It is now a public company, but Peter Bentley remains one of its largest shareholders, along with Jimmy Pattison.

Initially the family lived at the Hotel Vancouver, then at a rented mansion in Shaughnessy. In 1941, they purchased the house at 1402 McRae.

The house already had quite a history when the Bentleys moved in, which is why it is rated a heritage A building, Vancouver‘s highest ranking.

It was one of the first houses built in Shaughnessy after the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to build an elite neighbourhood for the city’s bluebloods. When it was built, it was in Point Grey, then a separate municipality, and would have had a breathtaking view of the city from its perch on a hill.

It is known as the Nichol mansion, after the original owner, Walter Nichol. Nichol owned The Province newspaper and was British Columbia‘s lieutenant-governor from 1920-26. Nichol commissioned B.C.’s top architect, Samuel MacLure, to build his home, which was done in the arts and crafts style in vogue at the time.

The Bentleys pretty much left the home as it was built, rather than “modernize” it. As such, it’s like a time capsule to 1912. It retains its original kitchen cupboards in the pantry, it still has a working dumb waiter that goes to the third floor, and it even has the original central vacuum system in the basement, not to mention the original tub and pedestal sink, and different rooms for the bathroom and toilet (known as a water closet).

The arts and crafts philosophy eschewed ornamentation and advocated using natural, local materials. Hence the house is all about restrained elegance, rather than an ostentatious display of wealth.

One of the best examples of this is the 2.4-metre panelling in the entrance, parlour and hallways, which is a big departure from the imported mahogany or walnut usually found in old mansions.

Every single window in the house is made of leaded glass (there is no stained glass). The library is done in walnut veneer, which the Bentleys probably added. The living room is simply enormous, and each of the house’s eight fireplaces has unique tiling: one bedroom fireplace features a scene of frolicking swans.

The grounds are ringed by 20-metre trees, and there are big gardens at the front and back. The vast grounds will be key to any redevelopment scheme. One possibility would be to move the house closer to the Crescent, then build more homes or townhouses in the back of the property.

The property was purchased by Brian Bell of Arthur Bell Holdings, who did a successful project involving a heritage home on a big piece of property at MacDonald and 45th.

“It was a heritage house that was sitting on three lots that totalled 1.3 acres,” Bell says.

“We ended up retaining the house and doing an infill development around it. It turned out pretty well, everybody seemed to be happy with it.”

Bell says he’s still looking at options for the site, and will be talking to neighbours, the city and heritage groups about what they would like to see done with the property.

“The Crescent is the pre-eminent address in Shaughnessy,” he says.

“The vortex of Shaughnessy, you might call it. It’s an important address. If you look at the houses around there, they’re still in their original condition for the most part. I think it’s important to address that, and try and keep the feel of the Crescent and First Shaughnessy. And that house is an important structure.”

Peter Bentley is confident the home can be retained in a new development. It has a strong familial pull; his father, on his deathbed, asked Peter to keep Antoinette in the house until she died. His mother went blind and developed serious Alzheimer’s, but Peter kept his promise.

“They had been wonderful to me, and I considered that an obligation,” says Bentley, who lives in another MacLure mansion built in 1919.

“So for the last several years, she had round-the-clock help. She didn’t even know me, she didn’t even know the people who looked after her every day, and she couldn’t utter a sentence. But I had promised my dad I’d keep her there, so that’s why we kept the house so long. Otherwise I would have put her in a home, but I felt I had to keep the faith.”

Antoinette died mere months before her family received some financial remuneration for the businesses it lost in the Nazi occupation of Austria. Last April, a New York court awarded $21.8 million US ($26.9 million Cdn.) from an account set up by Swiss banks to surviving members of the Bloch-Bauer and Pick families. Peter Bentley declined to take any of the money, but his five children received part of the award.

Peter’s aunt, Maria Altmann of Los Angeles, is now proceeding with a lawsuit against the Austrian government over six Klimt paintings that the Nazis seized from her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. One of the paintings is of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The paintings, which are now in the Austrian National Gallery, have an estimated value of $150 million US. The lawsuit is scheduled to begin Nov. 1 in Los Angeles. Peter Bentley is not taking part in the lawsuit.

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Dick Sandwell’s story isn’t quite as gripping as the Bentleys’ flight from the Nazis, but it’s remarkable in its own right. Born in England, raised in Powell River and educated at the University of British Columbia, he was dubbed Vancouver‘s “globetrotting engineer” for his constant flights to oversee engineering projects around the globe. In the 1950s, he was honoured as the first person in western Canada to travel more than one million miles as an airline passenger.

“At one point, he was the most travelled man in Canada,” says his daughter Sherry Killam. “He was a very hard-working, interesting man, a very interesting, stimulating person.”

Working in Tasmania in the 1940s, he often went sailing with a friend who was interested in maritime history.

“They used to sail around to places that had been explored by Cook and Captain Bligh and people like that,” said Killam.

“When he came back to Vancouver, he began to follow the tracks of 18th century English and French explorers who travelled around this area. Then he started to collect their journals. He got really interested in having the artifact.

“I think the first book he collected was an edition of [British Admiral George] Anson.

He acquired it in 1942 in Melbourne. That was a 15th edition, and, in 1983, he finally acquired the first edition. He was a very assiduous collector.”

Over time, Sandwell assembled one of the world’s great collections of Pacific and Arctic voyages — books published by explorers when they returned from their voyages of discovery. He has rare early editions of books by Capt. James Cook, Sir Francis Drake and Capt. George Vancouver, among others.

“What made this collection interesting and different was it really focused not just on the northwest coast but on all of the Pacific,” explains Don Stewart of MacLeod’s Books in Vancouver, who bought some of Sandwell’s collection.

“There are a lot of Australian voyages, there are Russian voyages throughout the Pacific, French voyages throughout the Pacific. His parameter in building the collection was to build something that told the story of marine exploration throughout the Pacific. In that sense, it was the only such collection [in Canada].”

His daughter says Sandwell took a scholarly approach to the collection, spending a lot of time on research and buying from top dealers in Copenhagen, London and San Francisco.

“One of his most interesting books was a small book that Captain Cook put together,” says Killam.

“I think he put 10 of them together. They were pieces of the different tapa cloths that he collected in the south Pacific when he was travelling. So it’s actually the cloth that he collected, which was cut up into pages and bound up in books. It was really cool. That was our favourite.”

A Catalogue Of The Different Specimens Of Cloth Collected In The Three Voyages Of Captain Cook To the Southern Hemisphere (London: Alexander Shaw, 1787) is lot 39 in the Christie’s auction, and has an estimate of 35,000 to 45,000 British pounds, which is approximately $75,000 to $100,000 Canadian dollars.

But it doesn’t carry the highest pre-auction estimate in the 118 lot sale. A 13-volume set by French explorer Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont D’urville, Voyage de la Corvette l’Astrolabe (Paris: Tastu, 1830-1835) has an estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 pounds, which is approximately $65,000 to $110,000 Canadian.

The most valuable book in the auction looks to be Charles Darwin’s three-volume The Zoology Of The Voyage of HMS Beagle During the Years 1832 to 1836 (London: Stewart and Murray for Smith, Elder & Co., 1839-1843), which has an estimate of 40,000 to 60,000 pounds, or approximately $85,000 to $130,000.

Capt. William Bligh’s own account of the famous mutiny on the Bounty — A Narrative Of The Mutiny, On Board His Majesty’s Ship ‘Bounty’; And The Subsequent Voyage of Part Of The Crew (London: George Nicol, 1790) — carries an estimate of 5,000 to 8,000 pounds ($11,000 to $17,000).

George Vancouver’s three volume A Voyage Of Discovery To The North Pacific Ocean And Round The World (London: G.G. and J. Robinson and J. Edwards, 1798) is estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 pounds (about $32,000 to $43,000).

The pre-sale estimate for the entire collection is 500,000 to 800,000 pounds, which is approximately $1 million to $1.7 million.

“It is an interesting and rare field of collecting — this is the finest collection of this kind [to come up for auction] for over 10 years,” said Tom Lamb, director of Christie’s book department in London.

Killam admits the family thought about donating the collection, but in the end, decided to put it back on the market.

“We thought about donating it, but we decided that it was one of those things that just goes into somebody’s hands for awhile, then it carries on,” says Killam.

The P.R. Sandwell collection of Pacific and Arctic voyages can be viewed online at:

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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