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Philanthropist Michael Audain reveals himself as record-setting buyer of Emily Carr piece

“I love walking in the deep forest,” says the wealthy Vancouver real-estate developer and philanthropist Michael Audain. “And when I do that, I often think, ‘Okay, this is an Emily Carr scene.’”

It wasn’t love at first sight for Audain and Carr. A recent immigrant to Victoria, young Michael – then 9 or 10 – first saw an image of her work during a slideshow lecture at the Royal British Columbia Museum, and he found it frightening. “It bothered me for quite some time. I even had some nightmares about it,” recalls Audain, now 76.

But when Audain first encountered an actual Carr painting in the late 1960s at the Vancouver Art Gallery, he recognized her brilliance. “By then I’d done the tours of art museums in New York and Europe and came to the conclusion: ‘Oh my God, this woman is really special. She should be able to hold her own with many of the important artists of the early 20th century.’”

Audain has become a great collector of the Victoria-born Carr’s work, with more than 20 works in the collection he has amassed with his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa – the most important private collection of Carr’s work in the country.

He has now revealed that it was he who purchased the large-scale work The Crazy Stair – sold at auction last year for $3.39-million – setting a record for Carr at auction (and for a female Canadian artist) and becoming the fourth most expensive work sold at art auction in Canada. The sale by Heffel Fine Art Auction House in Toronto in November prompted great speculation about who the anonymous buyer might be.

Michael Audain bought the Emily Car painting The Crazy Stair last year for $3.39-million. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

Audain bought it for the museum he is building in Whistler, B.C. The Audain Art Museum is scheduled to open in late 2015.

“Obviously it was very hotly contested, but I’m glad that not only were we able to acquire it, but also we’re keeping the picture in British Columbia,” says Audain, who says the purchase “greatly strained” his pocketbook. “I didn’t anticipate we were going to have to pay so much, but I was certainly determined to get it for Whistler.”

The work had belonged to the members-only Vancouver Club, the power-lunch and after-hours seat of the city’s establishment. Audain recalls seeing it hanging halfway up a dark staircase going into the dining room, with a little lamp over it.

“I always looked forward to seeing it when I went to the Vancouver Club,” says Audain, adding that he doesn’t visit often. “It’s such a powerful scene.”

It will be one of more than 20 works – including House with Slanted Roof – Brittany (1911); War Canoes, Alert Bay (1912) and Quiet (1942) – from his personal collection that will go to the Audain Art Museum, a 56,000-square-foot-facility designed by Patkau Architects. The Carr collection is certain to be a museum highlight.

Audain first bought a Carr work in the early 1970s for $3,200, but ran into financial difficulties later in the seventies and sold it for $7,500. (He never bought it back.)

He is thrilled to see international recognition finally come to Carr: at the important documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, in 2012; this November with a Carr exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which is including Carr in a 2017 exhibition. “I’m just so delighted that she’s getting this much broader recognition.”

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