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The Lawren Harris canvas that could set auction record

Hard to believe in a world where impermanence seems the only permanence … but the record for the most money ever paid at auction for a Canadian work of art has withstood all comers for more than 12 years. But this record, of just less than $5.1-million for an 1846 Paul Kane painting titled Scene in the NorthwestPortrait, stands a good chance of being eclipsed later this month in Toronto. The contender? A large, starkly powerful canvas by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris hitherto never offered for sale or even publicly displayed.
Lake Superior Painting X by Lawren Harris

Lake Superior Painting X has been consigned to Waddington’s auctioneers by an unidentified Toronto-area collector, believed to be in his early 90s, who’s been its sole owner since purchasing it from the Harris family in 1952. Prime-period, museum-quality Harrises – that is, canvases or oil sketches done between, roughly, 1920 and 1930 – rarely come to auction and when they do, the presale estimates reflect their scarcity. The 102-by-127 centimetres of Lake Superior Painting X are no exception: Waddington’s is sending it into its May 26 live sale of fine Canuck art bearing an estimate of $2.5- to $3.5-million. Unsurprisingly, interest among prospective buyers of the well-heeled sort is high.

No date or signature is affixed to the painting, a common practice of Harris after 1924. But it’s likely to have been painted around 1926. Harris made several trips to the north shore of Lake Superior, the first in fall 1921 accompanied by Group pals Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson. The region’s spacious, elemental beauty and dramatic lighting chimed with his growing interest in theosophy and other arcane metaphysical pursuits. The year 1926 is the same date appended to The Old Stump, Lake Superior, a 30.5-by-38.1-cm oil sketch Vancouver-based Heffel Fine Art Auction House sold in November, 2009, for $3.51-million, including buyer’s premium (the service charge levied by the auctioneer on the hammer price).

That astonishing tally, for what is essentially the preparatory work for a large Harris canvas (North Shore, Lake Superior, in the National Gallery collection since 1930), stands as the second highest amount paid at auction for a Canadian painting. If Lake Superior Painting X meets or comes close to meeting the high end of its presale estimate May 26, it will easily establish a new auction record for a Harris once the buyer’s premium of 18 per cent is included.

However, Linda Rodeck, Waddington’s vice-president of fine art and its senior Canadian specialist, is entertaining even greater ambitions. “You know, don’t you, if we hit [a hammer price of] $4.3-million, we set a new record?” she observed this week. “That’s what I’m aiming for. I don’t want to be greedy – of course, we’ll happily take the estimate – but this is the sort of painting that could have the legs to take it all the way.”

“It’s been too long,” she added, “since the old record was set. It’s time for something new to talk about.” In fact, in terms of the Harris resale market alone, it has been four years since a Harris went to bidding with an estimate of more than $1-million. This was Bylot Island I, a 1930-31 Arctic-themed canvas, sold by Heffel for $2.81-million, including premium, against an estimate of $1.5-$2.5-million. (Heffel has its own choice Harris at live auction May 28 in Vancouver – a Lake Superior sketch, in fact, with a $500,000-$700,000 estimate.)

Harris, almost universally regarded as the greatest painter in the Group of Seven, is best known, of course, for his landscapes. But he also had a penchant for Toronto urban scenes, paintings of which have steadily earned more attention and more money in the resale market over the years. A 1922 canvas, Houses, St. Patrick Street, for example, was sold by Heffel in 2009 for close to $2.81-million, tying it with Bylot Island I as the third highest-earning Harris at auction.

Street Scene by Lawren Harris

An undated urbanscape, Street Scene, consigned by a non-Torontonian, is the other Harris canvas Waddington’s hopes to hammer down May 26. This strikingly vertical composition was consigned for sale more than 15 years ago to Toronto’s Joyner Fine Art Inc. (Joyner merged with Waddington’s in 2002) but failed to find a buyer and has been off the market ever since.

Rodeck doesn’t expect a repeat scenario and says she wouldn’t be surprised if Street Scene goes for considerably more than its $400,000-$600,000 estimate. No doubt its prospects are enhanced by the positive notice recently provided by art critic/scholar Paul Duval in his book Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings. Street Scene, he writes, “is an emotionally charged and very complex creation, bringing Harris’s urban series of paintings to a dramatic conclusion. It is a landmark in his career.”

Harris, of course, was hardly a neglected presence in Canadian arts during his lifetime (1885-1970) nor afterward. Nevertheless, the Waddington’s sale seems to be occurring against a backdrop of both intensifying and expanding interest in the man and his art. For example, 2011 saw him included in the well-received Painting Canada exhibition that toured London, Oslo and Groningen. A biography by McMaster historian James King was published in 2012. Just finished is Lawren Harris: Canadian Visionary, a large two-month retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery. On tap next year is another survey, this one a touring show co-curated by actor/author/comedian/Harris collector Steve Martin, set to start at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, travel to other U.S. venues, then conclude at the Art Gallery of Ontario. And in 2016 historian Roald Nasgaard will curate an exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection tentatively titled Mystical Modernism, about Harris’s move into abstraction in the mid-1930s.

Is it any wonder then that Rodeck claims that upon first encountering Lake Superior Painting X “you almost feel compelled to almost genuflect in front of it? I know ‘monumental’ is a pretty overused word in this business,” she said, “but it is a pretty arresting painting, the scale of it.” The important question for Waddington’s is, how many chequebooks will be genuflecting May 26?

Follow James Adams on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

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