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Femme assise sur un balcon by Henri Matisse.

Heffel Fine Art

By unveiling a multimillion dollar painting by Henri Matisse, the Heffel auction house is making a big bet on Canada’s emergence as a global art market.

Heffel Fine Art announced Wednesday that it is offering Femme assise sur un balcon for auction in Toronto in May and estimates it will sell for $3.8-million to $5.8-million. The buff-coloured painting of a young woman sitting on a balcony with a beach behind her was consigned to Heffel by a collector who lives in Monaco and who has no connection to Canada, president David Heffel said in an interview. Painted by the French artist in Nice in 1919, the work represents an unusually prominent international art work for a Canadian sale.

“This is a step up,” Mr. Heffel said. “We have had a concerted strategy – the industry generally and Heffel in particular – to become bigger internationally … Canada has an opportunity to become a greater player.”

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Mr. Heffel refuted any notion that a discount on the seller’s premium paid to the auction house might have attracted the Monégasque consigner: “They were competitive terms, but our terms were not the reason the painting was consigned. It was an astute global art collector who sees an opportunity by participating in a sale in Canada.”

If the painting sells in its estimated range, the auction house believes it would set a new Canadian auction record for international art, but such sales are rare enough and there is little data. Meanwhile, the painting seems unlikely to beat records for Canadian art, including the $11.2-million high hit by Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms at another Heffel sale in 2016.

The Matisse painting, which is now in Canada and will be previewed to potential buyers in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto through May, has had an international history and several owners. It was sold by the estate of Matisse’s grandson to a private collector, who in turn sold it to its present owner in a private sale through Christie’s in New York in 2008. This means there should be no difficulty exporting the painting to any country in the world.

Heffel’s international ambitions ran into a roadblock in 2016 when the Canadian government refused to issue an export permit for a painting of irises by the 19th-century French artist Gustave Caillebotte that had been purchased by a British art dealer: Experts had argued the painting was too culturally important to let it leave Canada.

Heffel took that decision to court and won – in 2018, a Federal Court judge declined to believe that a French painting was central to Canadian cultural heritage – but the government has appealed. A decision on that appeal, which was heard in February, is still pending.

That case has been particularly controversial because it has disrupted a system that occasionally helps Canadian museums buy expensive foreign art by refusing export permits for works deemed of “outstanding significance and national importance.” The judge’s ruling – that the art has to be Canadian, or at least have some major link to Canada, to be deemed of national importance – sideswiped the museums’ donation process, because the same criteria are also used to award special tax credits to collectors who give art.

In the Liberals’ March budget, the federal government moved to untangle the two categories simply by removing the term national importance from the language covering donations. The meaning of national importance on the export side will now be determined by a Federal Court of Appeal ruling. Canada’s system of export controls is based on the British system, which regularly blocks non-British art from leaving that country. On the other hand, the United States has no export controls on cultural property.

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The peripatetic Matisse painting has not been in Canada long enough to be blocked: Only works that have been in the country 35 years are subject to review. It also comes with a clearance from the Art Loss Register, indicating it has never been stolen. It goes on the auction block May 29 in a sale of Canadian, Impressionist and modern art at Toronto’s Design Exchange.

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