Canadian art has a moment and the timing couldn’t be better

As Spring Art Auctions Break Records Around the World, Some Coveted Canadian Works Arrive

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The iconic and coveted coastal figure of Alex Colville will be there, as well as a cheerful and quintessential oil on canvas by Emily Carr, Singing Trees. There will be four works by Lawren Harris on the block, including Mountain Sketch, a vivid depiction of skylight streaming over the mountains of British Columbia that makes one believe in higher powers.

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But the headliner of Heffel’s House of Fine Arts‘ annual spring auction of Canadian art on June 1 is the spectacular 1953 drip and palette piece Untitled by the Quebec artist of internationally renowned Jean-Paul Riopelle. The presale estimate for this single piece is $1–1.5 million, with a total of $10–15 million estimated for the 70 works in the block.

Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle's 1953 work, Untitled, will go on sale at the Heffel Art Auction on June 1
Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle’s 1953 work, Untitled, will go on sale at the Heffel Art Auction on June 1 Photo of Heffel Fine Art Auction House

If the May art auctions in New York are any indication, final sale prices could easily exceed these estimates once the auctions stop. Between Sotheby’s and Christie’s alone, almost $3 billion has been sold in art so far this month – and the sales aren’t even over. This includes the staggering US$195 million fetched at Christie’s for Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, 1964, the highest price ever paid for a 20th century work of art.

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Heffel is Canada’s premier art auction house, and its annual spring auction is one of the most anticipated auctions of its kind in North America.

“Each sale set a few records,” says Robert Heffel, vice president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House. “In recent years, the art market in Canada and around the world has been very strong. We know that will continue this spring. In 2020, a work by Colville, dog and bridgewiped out Heffel’s estimated auction value of $800,000, selling for $2.4 million.

The coastal figure of Alex Coville
The coastal figure of Alex Coville Photo of Heffel Fine Art Auction House

The pandemic may have dampened travel, entertainment and restaurants, but it has boosted art sales around the world. Much of it was online bidding, which many auction houses were forced to speed up. The ability to participate, in real time, from anywhere, has opened up the pool of bidders and brought a new awareness of important works to international buyers. Christie’s live auctions this month attracted 3.7 million viewers worldwide, who saw 27 sales records broken.

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Collectors and art lovers from the United States, Europe and Asia are now regular participants in Canadian art sales, and their presence in online bidding wars is helping to drive up prices. In what is sure to be a lively evening on June 1 — it will also be streamed live on Facebook, Youtube and the Heffel House website — there will be in-person, online and phone attendees connected to House staff. Heffel in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto offices.

“Anytime you can make it easier for people across Canada and around the world to connect and bid from home, that’s a pretty powerful tool,” Heffel says.

It also helps Canadian art have a moment, gain exposure at high-profile events, and establish impressive new selling prices with buyers around the world. On May 11, the late Canadian contemporary artist Matthew Wong set a record at Christie’s auction. green room2017, sold for US$5.34 million, more than double the pre-sale estimate of US$2 million.

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Another record was broken for a painting by Maud Lewis on May 14 at an online auction by Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. of New Hamburg, Ontario. With aggressive bidding, Lewis black truck sold for $413,000 – more than ten times the amount it was supposed to fetch – and far surpassed Lewis’ previous record of $67,000 set last November.

And this week Buffet II, a 2021 painting by New York-based Canadian artist Anna Weyant, sold for US$580,000 to a Hong Kong bidder at an auction at Phillips in New York.

Heffel says there is strong interest in many pockets of Canadian art, from the Impressionists to the contemporary. The auction house holds a bi-annual online sale of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, and the most recent April sale was what is known as a ‘white glove sale’ – 100% sold.

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Major public exhibitions such as Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons at the Ottawa Art Gallery or Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment at the McMichael Collection near Toronto celebrate Canadian artists and offer the public new opportunities to enjoy them, not to mention the thrill of attending a cultural event in person.

As always, the main factor behind sales records are the works themselves. And some rarely-seen important Canadian works come to market through estate sales of former private family collections.

Emily Carr's Singing Trees
Emily Carr’s Singing Trees Photo of Heffel Fine Art Auction House

Heffel says some of the best collections built in the 60s and 70s are coming back to market. Baby boomers who inherited these works are now aging themselves and recalculating their heritage. “We are seeing a demographic shift of some very large works of art coming to market from these collections that were built up many years ago.”

Emily Carr’s painting on the block on June 1, a heirloom from Sellers, was first seen by Heffel in 2000. “It only took me 22 years to get this Emily Carr.”

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