Toronto antiques-and-oddities collector Billy Jamieson was to be the subject of a reality-TV series at the time of his untimely death last year. Those close to the program—premiering this Thursday on History Television—explain why the show must go on.
It’s been a year since Billy Jamieson died suddenly in his apartment on Wellington Street.
Jamieson was a dealer of art and antiquities and funny little oddities like guillotines and electric chairs. At the time of his death, he was about to become the host and star of a History Television show, Treasure Trader, which makes its debut on June 28 at 10 p.m.
Jamieson’s life was his business. Or perhaps his business was his life—in the high-end world of dealing “treasures,” it’s not clear where one ends and the other begins. And Jamieson loved all of it, from traveling to shows in Paris and Brussels, to scouting antique motorcycles. He dealt in shrunken heads (pictured below) and Egyptian mummies and Samurai swords. What he couldn’t sell often ended up in his downtown apartment-turned-museum. (In the end, that apartment housed about 3,000 items of all shapes and sizes.)
Jamieson was a rock star—the type of guy that had a global network of the rich, famous, interesting, and odd. He gave up his contracting business to make a pilgrimage to South America, where he bought his first head. He could sell a reality television–show concept, even though most people had never heard of him. And, then, he was gone.
“This was the biggest challenge of all,” says John LaRose, the series writer, producer and director at Cream Productions, which produced the show with Jamieson for History Television. “When he passed away, the series would have [traditionally] passed away with him.”
But the work was so close to being done. Over the two-year period prior to Jamieson’s passing, the team had completed most of the shooting. To finish the show, they took additional footage, interviews, and b-roll. And they enlisted Jessica Lindsay Phillips, Jamieson’s fiancée and business partner, for much of the process.
Phillips (pictured below) was Jamieson’s right-hand woman, both at home and on the road. An extreme multi-tasker, she jumped right into Jamieson’s world seamlessly when they began dating, and with style. She’s got tattoo sleeves and a killer closet, and they ran his business together: It was a team of Jessica and Billy.
For the past year, Phillips and Cream have been tasked with fulfilling the final creative dream of her deceased partner. “It’s just another adventure,” she says. “You just keep going.
“It’s like delivering Billy’s baby—it’s a relief,” she adds. “Everything involving our life post-Billy is making sure that it’s how he would have wanted it to be done.”
Over eight episodes, Treasure Trader doesn’t suffer from a lack of dramatic tension. Viewers watch as Jamieson flips a coin on a Paris street to determine if he, or another dealer, will take home a shrunken head. This is no traditional History Television show—there is very little use of stock footage, no musical wallpaper. It moves fast, and it’s edgy.
Jamieson knew the show might ruffle feathers. Antiquities are an insular trade, where dealers and buyers tap out a complicated dance around financial secrecy and rare finds. “A lot of these people, and the larger auction houses like Sotheby’s that deal with a lot of collections, don’t share their secrets,” says LaRose. “Billy could often only take us to a certain point, and then we had to back off with the cameras.”
Still, Jamieson wasn’t afraid to open the doors a bit: In the pilot episode, a camera hidden in a briefcase is strategically used during a meeting about a mummy.
Phillips doesn’t expect much backlash within the industry to the hidden-camera use. “When a mask is bought in North America, it echoes across the ocean to Europe. Everything is known anyway,” she says.
Phillips is continuing Jamieson’s business, and recently returned to Toronto after attending an auction of African and Oceanic art at Sotheby’s in New York. “You can’t just be brought into a world like this, and leave,” she says. “I had a passion for this before Billy, I just didn’t know it existed. I can never see myself leaving. I love it too much. It’s not the end.”