Several records fell and new ones established Thursday as Heffel Fine Art kicked off the live autumn auction season by offering just over 190 lots of high-end Canadian art for sale in a Toronto hotel ballroom.
By the time the final gavel came down around 9 p.m. ET, the Vancouver-based auction house, which has dominated the Canadian art resale market for at least the last five years, had sold an estimated 80 per cent of its wares for close to $16.6-million, including the 17 per cent commission it charges on each successful hammer bid. Pre-sale, Heffel had placed an estimate of $8.5-million to $12.7-million, excluding commission, on its consignments.
As usual, Heffel divided its sale into two parts, devoting the first to art made after the Second World War, the second to so-called “fine Canadian art” – that is, art produced by such venerables as the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, the Beaver Hall Group and Cornelius Krieghoff.
The first and major highlight came early, in the auction’s first half-hour when spirited volleys among at least six bidders culminated in a winning bid of $2.34-million, including premium, for a large 1962 canvas by the Quebecois master Jean Paul Lemieux. Applause greeted the sale of Nineteen Ten Remembered, one of the most iconic images in Canadian art.
Consigned by Montreal collector Francois Odermatt, the oil was expected to do well as interest in Lemieux, who died in 1990, has been intensifying in the last two years. (Indeed, eight other Lemieux’s consigned to Heffel sold for $1.6-million.) But it exceeded most expectations by surpassing not only the previous auction summit for a Lemieux canvas ($1,023,750, set in May this year) but also national and worldwide records for post-war and contemporary Canadian art sold at auction. The previous record-holder is another Quebecois master, Jean-Paul Riopelle, who had one of his paintings sell for $1.89-million (Cdn) at Christies New York in 2008 and another two years before that, for $1.67-million courtesy Heffel in Toronto.
Thursday’s triumph places Lemieux in the rarefied “$2-million Club” of Canadian artists at auction, where he’s joined by Paul Kane, Emily Carr and Lawren Harris. Indeed, Lemieux is the only post-war/contemporary artist to be in that select group. (Mr. Odermatt, who’s reportedly been trying to sell Nineteen Ten Remembered privately for at least a year, attended the auction where he was a noticeable presence. Afterwards, he said he had “no clue” who the winning phone bidder was but said he believed the under-bidder, also on the phone, had been “a friend.”)
Carr and Harris were no slouches either at the Heffel sale. Carr’s small 1908 watercolour, War Canoe, Alert Bay, sold for $1.23-million, including premium – a record for the artist in that medium as well as the most ever paid at auction for any watercolour by a Canadian. Consigned by a Vancouver collector, the painting went into bidding with a $200,000-$300,000 estimate. Harris’s small but powerful oil from 1929, Rocky Mountain Sketch CXXI (Mount Robson), was bought by Vancouver dealer Torben Kristiansen for $1.85-million – the second highest amount ever paid for a sketch by the Group of Seven founder and almost four times the $500,000 Heffel had affixed as its high-end estimate pre-sale. Proceeds from the sale were donated to Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital.
Other post-war artists who performed well were Torontonians Michael Snow and the late Jack Bush. Snow’s 1962 mixed-media “Walking Woman” sculpture, Sideway, (another Odermatt consignment) eclipsed his previous auction record of $109,250, set in 2003, by selling for $175,500. Bush’s new record came via the sale of Sing, Sing, Sing (BG 38), a large and lively abstract oil on canvas that he completed three years before his death in 1977. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of $130,000-$160,000, it went for $234,000, easily besting his old record of $194,202 established earlier this year.
Heffel also had collections from several estates up for sale, the most notable being 16 lots from the Francois Dupre collection. Until this year, the collection had been out of sight for almost a quarter-century, having been stored in a vault in Montreal where the French-born Dupre (1888-1966) had been the owner of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. All 16 lots sold for a total of almost $2.3-million, highlighted by the $526,500 earned by Regates a Saint-Malo, a seashore scene in oil painted by J.W. Morrice in 1905.
The fall auction season continues Friday morning with the Joyner Waddington sale in Toronto. Sotheby’s Canada holds its auction of important Canadian art Nov. 28.