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B.C. paintings fetch record prices Add to ...

An iconic and evocative E.J. Hughes painting - which originally sold for $350 in 1952 - fetched more than $1.1-million at auction in Vancouver on Tuesday, breaking the previous record for a work by the Vancouver Island painter.

Coastal Boats Near Sidney, BC, signed and dated 1948, was acquired by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia directly from the artist, who was born in North Vancouver but lived for most of his life on Vancouver Island. The College held onto it for almost 60 years, along with Hughes' 1952 work, Mouth of the Courtenay River. That painting, which the College bought for $150, sold at auction Tuesday for just under $790,000 (all prices include a 17 per cent buyer's premium).

"It was great today to introduce Hughes to that super-elite million dollar club in Canada," said auction house president David Heffel, after the sale.

Quebec artist Jean Paul Lemieux also joined the million dollar club, with the sale Tuesday of his 1964 painting Les Moniales, which went for just over $1-million. "I knew it was going to happen one time soon, perhaps in the next five years, and we're just overjoyed to see it happen tonight," Heffel said, of the million dollar Lemieux sale.

The work - depicting four Sisters living in a nunnery - broke the record for a Lemieux painting set moments earlier by his 1966 work Dimanche, which sold for $819,000. Both came from the estate of Edgar and Dorothy Davidson, a Montreal couple whom Heffel called a "dynamic duo" of art collecting.

"Just like the Canucks are hoping to win the Stanley Cup; tonight we won the Stanley Cup with Jean Paul Lemieux and E.J. Hughes," Heffel said.

Another highlight Tuesday was the sale of Jean-Paul Riopelle's Sans titre from 1955, which sold for $1.08-million.

Since 2008, Heffel has divided its sale of post-war and contemporary work from its Fine Canadian Art - the traditionally big earners such as Emily Carr, Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris (his earlier works). On Tuesday, for the first time (and as expected), the afternoon post-war sale surpassed the evening Fine Canadian Art sale, bringing in $8.8-million, compared to $4.8-million for the latter. "I think it's indicative of the changing demographics of our consignments," Heffel said.

While the auction total - $13.6-million - did not come close to Heffel's 2010 $22.2-million spring auction, it still ranks as the sixth-highest grossing Canadian fine art auction in history. The $8.8-million for post-war and contemporary art set a record.

Records were also set Tuesday for the B.C. artist Gordon Smith, Quebec artist Rita Letendre, the Ontario-born pre-war painter Horatio Walker, and for a work on paper by Jack Bush. A suspended lamp by Jean Paul Mousseau sold for $43,895 - also a record.

But it was the Hughes sale, above all, that seemed to affect the Heffels most deeply. "Robert and I and the rest of the Heffel team really got, I would say, emotionally attached to the two E.J. Hughes works," said David Heffel.

He recounted how, when Heffel sold Hughes' Fishboats, Rivers Inlet for a record-breaking $920,000 in 2004, Hughes was listening in on the auction by phone. It wasn't easy to organize: Hughes was notorious, Heffel said, for being anxious about pre-set appointments. But Heffel knew that Hughes showed up at the Dog House diner in Duncan, B.C. with military precision for his meals. So he arranged with the restaurant manager to get the artist on the phone when the painting was going to be sold.

"It was a total surprise for [Hughes]" Heffel said. "Otherwise it wouldn't have happened. If we had pre-arranged it, he would have got stage fright."

Over the phone that night, Hughes's voice broadcast out to the Toronto ballroom where the sale took place. "I'm glad to hear that it sold for 800,000," he said (the premium pushed the price up to $920,000). "And naturally I'm sorry I'm not getting that myself. The present owner will be getting it. But the publicity and the advertising for my other work will be very welcome."

For Heffel, it was an unforgettable moment.

"That will be one of the highlights of my career," he said. "It was really special to share that moment with the artist, but also to allow the artist to share it with our audience."

Hughes could not share the moment on Tuesday. He died in 2007.

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