If a painting by Henri Matisse sells for millions in Toronto next week it will probably set a new Canadian auction record for international art – “probably,” only because such sales are so rare no one really knows what the previous record might be.
In an auction market in which the usual highlights are provided by Lawren Harris’s mountain landscapes or Jean-Paul Riopelle’s abstract canvases, Matisse’s Femme assise sur un balcon (Woman on a Balcony) is something of an oddity. The buff-coloured painting of a young woman with a beach behind her was executed in Nice in 1919 and consigned from a private collection in Monaco to Heffel Fine Art Auction House for a sale of Canadian and international art to be held on Wednesday. It is expected to fetch between $3.8-million and $5.8-million, a high figure for international art in a Canadian auction but a relatively low one for Matisse, whose top prices are in the tens of millions. Still, as a big-ticket painting without a Canadian connection, it marks Heffel’s rising international ambitions.
“The world needs more Canada and it needs more Canadian art,” president David Heffel said. “The game changer is having multimillion dollar works by international masters consigned to Canada by non-Canadians … We are not going to overcome New York, London or Hong Kong but we are going to move up the ladder and the Matisse is a first step.”
Heffel believes it is realistic to think Canada in general, and Toronto specifically, can emerge as a major international market because the city is wealthy, centrally located, and enjoys strong cultural links to both Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, the relatively low prices of Canadian art offer bargains for international collectors. For example, Heffel has a German client who collects abstract art from the 1950s and comes to Canada looking for works by artists such as Riopelle, Paul-Émile Borduas and Marcelle Ferron.
“We feel on a global scale Canadian art is undervalued … The value will be recognized by collectors who are hunters.”
Heffel and its chief competitor in Toronto, Waddington’s, both point out that Canadian auctions have a well-established history of selling international art to foreigners.
“Canada has long been a feeding ground for international buyers,” said Stephen Ranger, vice-president of Waddington’s. “When you are talking [Paul] Cézanne, Matisse, yes those will go to international centres … but it’s about the thousands of smaller transactions. It’s routine for countries to buy back their art: the French buy the French; the English buy the English,” he said. He explained that waves of immigrants bring art to Canada that may later be sold and repatriated to its original home. There is also long-standing foreign interest in Inuit art, he said.
Although the difficulty of exporting masterpieces from Canada has made headlines in recent months, neither auctioneer is worried that government regulations will get in the way of expanding foreign sales. Heffel had challenged federal regulations that can delay the export of important historic art that has been in Canada 35 years or more, after it sold a painting by the 19th-century French artist Gustave Caillebotte to a British dealer in 2016 only to have it stopped at the border. Last year, Heffel initially won its case when a Federal Court judge ruled that Canada could not reasonably consider foreign art to be of “national importance,” but in April it lost on appeal. The Federal Court of Appeal ruled that government experts had the right to define what national importance meant. Heffel still believes the rules need updating, but added that the Caillebotte case remains unusual.
“Our rules are not inhibiting the opportunities; they aren’t as free as in the U.S., but in the history of Heffel, there have only been two works delayed,” he said, adding that European buyers are familiar with export controls because they have similar laws in their countries.
“We don’t see it as problem,” Ranger agreed, also pointing to the rarity of such delays which give interested Canadian museums time and grant money to buy art rather than let it leave the country.
Still, some observers think Canada has a long way to go before it will become a hot art market.
“They are definitely positioning themselves to appear as if they can play that game,” Calgary art dealer Yves Trépanier said of Heffel’s ambitions, but questioned how realistic it is to think Toronto could ever compete for the million-dollar consignments that usually go to New York. On the other hand, he does say Canadian dealers could engage much more aggressively in the international art market by selling international art to Canadians and attracting foreign buyers for Canadian art: “We are one of the richest countries in the world but we are really lagging behind. … We need to step up our game.”
Years from now, the Matisse may be a forgotten anomaly – or remembered as the start of a trend.