There were no takers when a painting by Henri Matisse came up for sale at a Toronto auction Wednesday.
“Nothing ventured, nothing lost,” auctioneer David Heffel said as Femme assise sur un balcon (Woman on a Balcony) failed to meet its reserve and remained unsold. Heffel Fine Art Auction House had estimated the painting from 1919 would sell for $3.8-million to $5.8-million and had touted the lot as evidence of the Canadian art market’s international reach. But the French painting, consigned by a collector in Monaco with no Canadian connections, generated little interest when bidding opened at $2.8-million and rapidly closed at $3-million. The buff-coloured painting, showing a woman on a balcony with the beach at Nice behind her, lacks the hot colours associated with Matisse’s best-loved work of the same period, and was estimated at values well below the French artist’s top prices.
The auctioneer responded with humour to the disappointment, saying afterwards: “My late father, Kenneth G. Heffel, Heffel’s honorary chairman, always said, ‘Babe Ruth struck out more often than he hit home runs, but you’ll never hit a home run unless you swing the bat.’ ”
The vagaries of the art market were on full display Wednesday: Immediately after the unfortunate Matisse, there was lively bidding for Mon modèle (My Model) an unusual 1952 painting by the Japanese-French artist Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita. The eerie portrait of a doll-like child model in a white bonnet and red dress by a lesser-known artist had been estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, but sold for $290,000 (plus the premium paid to the auction house, which is 25 per cent on the first $25,000 and 20 per cent on the remainder).
The sale of Canadian, Impressionist and modern art also included three works by Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson consigned by the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is selling the classic Canadian paintings with a view to diversifying its collection. There was lively interest in the Jacksons: One bidder in the room bought both Laurentian Hills of 1932-33, estimated at $250,000 to $350,000, for $375,000 (plus the buyer’s premium) and paid $160,000 for Red Cedar, estimated at $125,00 to $175,00. A third work, Quebec, Winter, (1925) sold for $22,500, falling just short of its estimate of $25,000 to $35,000.
Earlier in the day at Heffel’s auction of postwar and contemporary art, the estate of Arnold and Blema Steinberg continued its dispersal of the Montreal couple’s noted collection of modernist paintings. The highlight of the sale was a pair of 1953 canvases by Jean-Paul Riopelle: Carnaval II and Incandescence, a painting included in Riopelle’s first American show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1954. Both were sold to the same unidentified telephone bidder at a hammer price of $1.9-million each.
Heffel declined to say whether the bidder is located in Canada or abroad; as important historical works, the paintings would require special export permits to leave Canada.
The 10 lots from the Steinberg collection, which fetched a total of about $6-million including the buyers’ premiums, also featured notable examples of Quebec abstractionists Paul-Émile Borduas, Guido Molinari, Claude Tousignant and Paterson Ewen. The auction follows a $45-million sale in New York earlier this month where the Steinberg estate offered major works by American abstractionists of the same period including Mark Rothko, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler. The Steinbergs’ art had been on long-term loan to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and that institution had some hopes of receiving at least part of the collection as a donation, but the estate proceeded with sales after the deaths of Arnold, Blema and their son Adam in rapid succession from 2015 to 2018. Part of the proceeds will be donated to programs at McGill University.