When Heffel holds its spring sale in Vancouver on Wednesday, it will make history as the first major auction house in the country to have a video work on the block.
Judy Radul's Describe Video portrays two workmates navigating a day at the office, while a dulcet-toned voiceover alerts the viewer to what's about to happen or, sometimes, what has already happened. The literal descriptions in the 2007 work remind us how we have been trained to read onscreen cues. But they're also a clue: While the workmates are sighted, the actors are blind.
"There's a lot of interesting layers to it and it's quite a deep, complex piece," says vice-president Robert Heffel.
The presale estimate of $5,000 to $7,000 – a tenth of the biggest price tag works – belies the fact that this is an important moment for the Vancouver-based auction house.
"We're really trying to develop the contemporary Canadian auction market in Canada for postwar and contemporary art," says Heffel. "We're trying to put out there the most important and the best artists in Canada, and artists like Judy Radul fit into that."
Video is hardly new as an art form; it was established more than 40 years. But Heffel says much of the art that makes it to auction comes from estates and families who collected in the 1960s and '70s, when there were fewer video works being made, which may explain why one has not previously gone under the gavel in Canada (Works by Owen Kydd and Lee Henderson did sell at the Canadian Art Foundation's Gallery Hop Gala Auctions in 2011 and 2012, respectively.)
Describe Video comes from the private collection of Bob Rennie, a successful real estate marketer who operates a private gallery in Vancouver. Rennie, who chairs the Tate's North American acquisitions committee, is also selling a 1996 series of photographs by Roy Arden.
Stephen Ranger, who founded Waddington's Concrete Contemporary Art program last year, points out that the market for video is small. Nonetheless, it is a development worth noting.
"I hope it does well," said Ranger, who is vice-president of business development with Waddington's. "That will just show me that Canadians are more ready for non-two dimensional work."
At the other end of the price range for Wednesday's Canadian Postwar and Contemporary Art auction is a large-scale Jean-Paul Riopelle 1955 oil on canvas, Composition, with a presale estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
Riopelle, who was born in Montreal and died in 2002, figures prominently in this auction. The eight other Riopelles offered at Wednesday's live auction come from the collection of Belle Burke, formerly Belle Notkin. She was an American studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1950s when she began an intense affair with the rising Canadian art star.
Burke tried to break it off several times, but Riopelle, who was married with two young children, persisted. "He kept giving her paintings," says Heffel. Finally, she ended it for good by returning to New York – taking the paintings with her. They've hung in her home, but she's elderly now, and downsizing.
"She's kept them all these years," says Heffel, whose auction house was contacted by her family in the U.S., who felt they should be sold through a Canadian house.
Other works on the block include a breathtaking large-scale 1930 A.Y. Jackson oil on canvas A Quebec Village (Winter, Saint-Fidèle), with a presale estimate of $500,000 to $700,000, and a tiny but powerful Tom Thomson sketch, Mississagi.