Records are likely going to be set at next week's auctions of so-called "important Canadian art" hosted in Toronto by the country's three major fine art auctioneers next week. But don't look for the records to come from the usual blue-chip suspects - paintings by the Lawren Harrises and Tom Thomsons - that have scored the $1-million-plus results in the last six or seven years.
Only one Thomson - a small illustration of a freighter from 1914 carrying a modest $5,000-$7,000 estimate - is being sold, by Sotheby's Canada on Tuesday. While 17 by Harris are up for bids, 16 of them are consignments of just one house, Vancouver-based Heffel Fine Art, for sale Thursday. None of the Harrises has $1-million or more in its pre-sale estimate, and many are being liquidated as part of estate sales. Joyner Waddington's has no Harrises or Thomsons among the 290-plus lots it's hammering down Monday evening to start the fall resale season.
The estimates for the Harrises and the Thomson total $3.27-million to $4.53-million - a far cry from last year at this time. Then, the seven Thomsons and 16 Harrises on the block were valued by estimate at $8.75-million to $11.04-million. Overall, the three auctioneers advertised just over 600 lots for sale, estimated at $18.9-million to $21.8-million. Next week? About 625 works are for sale, but they are estimated at $15.7-million to $21.4-million. Only one of these lots, a mammoth 1955 Jean-Paul Riopelle oil consigned to Heffel, features $1-million in its pre-sale estimate.
Over the years there have been predictions that the Canadian resale market would reach the equivalent of "peak oil" - the supply of at-hand, quality works by the Group of Seven and their amigos was being "mined out." Next week's sales leave experts guessing: Has the resale market for Thomson, Harris and their ilk peaked? Have most of their high-value stuff migrated onto the walls of a relatively small number of art museums, well-heeled private collectors and corporations? Or is it just a lull?
Certainly there's been no shortage of buyers willing to pay big bucks for small canvasses by Thomson and Harris. Of the 20 highest-priced Canadian art works ever sold at auction, 10 are by Harris and two are by Thomson, and the vast majority were purchased in just the last three years. Indeed, the records for a Harris, $3.5-million including premium, and for a Thomson, almost $2.8-million, were set only a year ago by Heffel.
Anthony Westbridge, the Vancouver-based publisher of The Canadian Art Sales Index and Made in Canada: An Investor's Guide to the Canadian Art Market, subscribes to the lull thesis. "I don't think there's a drying up," he said, adding: "In the spring we might just see 50 [Harrises and Thomsons ] There must be still a lot of good stuff out there - you can't always have great markets." Perhaps, he suggested, "in the last couple of years or so, there's been a loosening because of the financial crisis. Maybe a few families decided they could clear up a few problems by letting some of their jewels go. Maybe with the market stabilized, relatively, owners are saying, 'I don't have to let it go now so I'm not going to.'"
Toronto dealer, art consultant and self-described "market agnostic" Christopher Varley offers another, economy-based perspective. Central banks have "driven interest rates into the floor," he said recently. Earlier this month he sold "a high-value item to a collector of means who shook his head about this. He feels no incentive to save. Why not buy paintings?"
Shaun Mayberry, co-owner of Winnipeg's Mayberry Fine Art dealership, said finding buyers wasn't difficult, but that "sourcing material is the most challenging aspect." Heffel, in particular, has benefited from estate sales in recent years, most famously its 2009 auction of several superb works held by the family of the late Helen Band, which grossed more than $10-million. Factor out estate sales, however, and "the makeup of the sales would have been entirely different." According to Mayberry, "the market is already dry and this will only get more severe in the years to come."
The consensus is that this fall's offerings are, as one observer puts it, "pretty, but not exceptional." Sotheby's is expected to do well with a 1923 oil, Ontario Village, by the Group of Seven's Arthur Lismer (est. $400,000-$600,000). Three of Heffel's Harrises, including Mountain, Baffin Island North, a 1930sketch consigned by the estate of Torontonian Mary Breckenridge, could each reach or surpass the $1-million mark.
All the auction houses have sold post-Second World War and contemporary art over the years. But this fall marks the first time all the Big Three auctioneers have broken out such lots in separate sales categories. Heffel got the ball rolling in 2008, followed by Sotheby's, and now Joyner.
Some interpret the practice as a sign of a maturing Canadian art market, one that includes younger collectors with more catholic tastes, as well as a recognition that, as the best work by the country's old-school blue-chip artists seemingly slips out of reach, there's greater availability and more value to be found in works by Toronto's Painters Eleven (1953-1960) and Quebec Plasticiens such as Claude Tousignant and Guido Molinari. This fall, more than one-third of the total lots on sale can be classed as post-war or contemporary.
Yet even here Mayberry casts a cautious eye. "Major post-war paintings by Canada's best are practically as rare as major Group of Seven works," he notes. "The post-war market has been strong for years," thanks to "an active group of Canadian dealers." The higher profile accorded works from this era at auction is "simply [Sotheby's and Joyner]playing catch-up."