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Lawren Harris ‘Mountain Forms’ painting sells for record $11.2-million

Actor and comedian Steve Martin, who is guest curator of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts devoted to Canadian modernist Lawren Harris, stands next to Harris's "Mountain Forms" painting, left, during a gallery preview at the museum in Boston, Friday, March 11, 2016.

Charles Krupa/The Associated Press

A mountain was moved on Wednesday evening, and at a staggering record price. Lawren Harris's Mountain Forms, a serene essay in blue, grey and white, sold in Toronto for $11.21-million, making it the most expensive work by a Canadian artist ever sold at auction.

The sale obliterated the previous record (of $5.062-million) for a Canadian painting, held for almost 15 years by Paul Kane's 1845 Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy.

In a packed room for the Heffel Fine Art Auction House fall auction, held in the former home of the Toronto Stock Exchange, bidding was fierce for Mountain Forms, jumping forward at $500,000 increments once the price reached $5-million.

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The action was mostly carried by phone bidders, but eventually an anonymous paddle-waver in the room won out. It was one quick crack of the hammer, according to David Heffel, the auctioneer and Heffel president, "and one giant leap for the Canadian art market."

Related: Lawren Harris's iconic Mountain Forms could go to an American at auction

Related: Actor Steve Martin on bringing Lawren Harris to Americans and his AGO show

Read more: McMichael Canadian Art Collection bets big on past for 50th anniversary

Indeed, the record price (of $9.5-million on the hammer, plus an 18-per-cent premium) easily eclipsed the pre-auction estimate of $3-million to $5-million.

Originally titled Mountain Form, the record-smashing painting was shown in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts exhibition in Montreal in 1927. It then toured six American cities in 1930, when it was part of of the Paintings by Contemporary Canadian Artists exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts.

Calgary-based Imperial Oil Ltd., which acquired Mountain Forms in 1984, was the seller at the Heffel auction.

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An imposing 152-by-178-centimetre oil-on-canvas painting depicting Alberta's Mount Ishbel in the Sawback Range of the Canadian Rockies, Mountain Forms was a key piece within The Idea of North, a touring exhibit of Harrises that visited Los Angeles' Hammer Museum, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario this year.

That exhibition was co-curated by Steve Martin, the Harris-championing Hollywood actor who boldly suggested that Mountain Forms might sell for $10-million.

He was not far off.

The auction was deep on Mr. Harris, the debonair Group of Seven founder and now, dead since 1970, something of a rock star. The painter's Mount Robson from Berg Lake, an oil on board, circa 1929, fetched $1,888,000 (including premium). The price was well over the pre-auction estimate of $700,000.

Mount Robson from Berg Lake was part of a big selloff of works from the private collection of Peter and Joanne Brown. Amassed by one of Vancouver's most prominent businessmen, the stash was so impressive it rated its own catalogue.

Other jackpots from that collection included Tom Thomson's 1914 painting Sleet Storm, which brought $1,534,000 (including premium). A.J. Casson's Country Crisis also sold at that price. Mr. Harris's Mountain Sketch LXIII ($2-million) went well above its pre-auction estimates.

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Mr. Harris, helped by Mr. Martin's championing, is rather hot. At the recent Art Toronto fair, a photo-abstract work A Fantasy sold for $1.2-million.

At Heffel's spring auction this year in Vancouver, a trio of Harris paintings fetched more than $3-million.

And a year ago, Heffel's fiercely competitive fall auction broke records on the strength of museum-quality works by Mr. Harris. The paddle war achieved sales of $23.4-million, crushing pre-sale estimates of $10-million to $15-million. The leading lot was the Harris canvas Mountain and Glacier, which sold to an anonymous buyer for $4.6-million, three times its anticipated price.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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