An oil painting displayed at the first ever Group of Seven exhibition, in May 1920, fetched a staggering $589,000, including buyer's premium, Tuesday evening at the Sotheby's Canada auction in Toronto.
While not an auction record for the artist, J.E.H. MacDonald (that was set five years ago, at $977,500), the result for Wind Clouds handily bested the canvas's pre-sale estimate of $150,000-$175,000. A tempestuous, moody "lakescape," the work was purchased after a spirited round of bidding by Winnipeg dealer David Loch who often served as the agent at auctions for Kenneth Thomson, Canada's most prominent art collector until his death in 2006.
The MacDonald was one of 151 lots Sotheby's had been consigned for the selling - almost 40 per cent of them described as "contemporary" and "abstract" - and its sale before a packed house at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum was the undoubted highlight of what was, finally, a rather fitful auction.
Sotheby's went into the bidding advertising 153 lots (two were withdrawn before sale's start) estimated at $4-million-$5.8-million. By the time auctioneer Hugh Hildesley hammered down the last lot - a Ken Danby Christmas scene that, at $48,000, set an auction record for the veteran realist - the auction house had sold art with a total value of just under $5-million, including premium. (Sotheby's buyer's premium is 20 per cent on the first $50,000 of the hammer price of a sold work, 15 per cent of any amount above $50,000) An estimated 32 lots, 21 per cent of the total, were declared unsold.
Sotheby's Canada president David Silcox called the results overall "a good sale" - indeed, several records were set - but expressed disappointment that a few lots either went unsold or were sold at or near their low-end estimate. Perhaps the biggest failure of the evening was Ontario Village, a large, summery canvas by Mr. MacDonald's Group of Seven colleague, Arthur Lismer. Painted in 1923, the oil went into Tuesday's sale with the highest pre-sale estimate ($400,000-$600,000) of any of Sotheby's lots. Bidding, however, proved anemic and when it stalled at $340,000, the work was declared unsold. Another disappointment was Ocres, Jaune et Vert, a vibrant horizontal stripe canvas by the late Quebec master abstractionist Yves Gaucher. It sold - but the successful bid of $32,500 (excluding premium) was below the work's pre-sale estimate of $35,000.
More successful was Absurdo, a classic "target" acrylic by one of Mr. Gaucher's Quebec contemporaries, Claude Tousignant. Painted in 1964, it sold for $51,000, including premium - a new auction record for the 78-year-old artist. Another record-breaker was Guido Molinari whose vertical-striped canvas, Mutations Athematique Vert-Ocre (1965), earned $70,000, including premium, beating the late artist's previous auction record, $54,000, established two years ago.
Sotheby's had six David Milne works for sale, with the strongest performer being Blue Reader from 1914, a highly stylized portrait of Milne's first wife, that earned an impressive $163,500.
The fall auction season of important Canadian art continues (and concludes) Thursday in Toronto with a sale of almost 300 lots by Heffel Fine Art Auction House.