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


As spring art auctions smash records around the globe, some coveted Canadian works are hitting the block

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The iconic and coveted Alex Colville Coastal Figure will be there, and a cheerful, quintessential Emily Carr oil on canvas, Singing Trees. There will be four works from Lawren Harris on the block, including Mountain Sketch, a glowing depiction of light from the sky streaming onto B.C. mountains that makes one believe in higher powers.

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But the headliner at Heffel Fine Art’s annual spring auction of Canadian art on June 1 is the spectacular 1953 drip and palette piece Sans titre from internationally renowned Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. The pre-sale estimate for this piece alone is $1-$1.5 million, with $10-$15 million in total estimated for the 70 works on the block.

Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle’s 1953 work Sans Titre, comes onthe block at Heffel Fine Art Auction on June 1st
Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle’s 1953 work Sans Titre, comes onthe block at Heffel Fine Art Auction on June 1st Photo by Heffel Fine Art Auction House

If the May art auctions in New York are any indication, final selling prices could easily smash through those estimates once the bidding stops. Between Sotheby’s and Christie’s alone, close to US$3 billion has been sold in art so far this month — and the sales aren’t even finished. This includes the incredible 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 artwork.

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Heffel is the premier auction house of Canadian art, and its annual spring live auction is one of the most highly anticipated auctions of its kind in North America.

“Every sale has been setting a few records,” says Robert Heffel, vice-president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House. “The last couple of years the art market in Canada and around the globe has been very strong. We know that’s going to continue this spring.” In 2020, a Colville work, Dog and Bridge, annihilated Heffel’s estimated auction value of $800,000, selling for $2.4 million.

Alex Coville’s Coastal Figure
Alex Coville’s Coastal Figure Photo by Heffel Fine Art Auction House

The pandemic may have curbed travel, entertaining and dining out, but it boosted the sales of art globally. A large part of that was online bidding, which many auction houses were forced to accelerate. Being able to participate, in real time, from anywhere, has opened up the pool of bidders and brought new awareness of important works to international buyers. Christie’s live-streamed auctions this month drew 3.7 million viewers worldwide, who watched 27 sales records smashed.

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Collectors and art enthusiasts from the United States, Europe and Asia are now regularly participating in Canadian art sales, too, and their presence in online bidding wars is helping to boost prices. In what is certain to be a lively evening on June 1 — it will also be live-streamed on Facebook, Youtube and Heffel’s website — there will be participants in person, online and on the phone connected to staff at Heffel’s in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto offices.

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

It also helps that Canadian art is having a moment, getting exposure at marquee events and setting impressive new selling prices with buyers from around the world. On May 11, the late Canadian contemporary artist Matthew Wong set a record at Christie’s auction. Green Room, 2017, sold for US$5.34 million, more than double the presale estimate of US$2 million.

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Another record was smashed for a Maud Lewis painting on May 14, at an online auction by Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. of New Hamburg, Ont. With aggressive bidding, Lewis’s Black Truck sold for $413,000 — more than ten times the amount it was expected to fetch — and far exceeded the previous Lewis record of $67,000 set last November.

And this week, Buffet II, a 2021 painting by the 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 hot interest in many pockets of Canadian art, from the impressionists to contemporary. The auction house hosts a twice-yearly 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 per cent sold.

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Major public exhibitions like Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, at the National Gallery in Ottawa or Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment at the McMichael Collection near Toronto, are celebrating Canadian artists and providing the public with new opportunities to appreciate them, not to mention the thrill of actually attending a cultural event in person.

As always, the major factor behind record-smashing sales are the works themselves. And some rarely seen important Canadian works are coming to market through estate sales of older family private collections.

Emily Carr’s Singing Trees
Emily Carr’s Singing Trees Photo by 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 assets. “We are seeing a demographic shift of some really great works of art coming to market from those collections built a number of years ago.”

The Emily Carr painting on the block on June 1st, an inheritance by the sellers, was first seen by Heffel in 2000. “It only took me 22 years to get that Emily Carr.”

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