Lawren Harris was born rich in 1885 and did not sell his works for cheap, routinely getting twice as much for an oil sketch as his friend and fellow Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson. Even Harris would have been surprised, however, to see one of his large canvases sell at auction to an anonymous buyer for $11.2-million, nearly double the previous record for a painting by any Canadian artist.
"It means great things for the Canadian artists of that generation," said private gallerist Alan Klinkhoff, whose father Walter Klinkhoff sold Mountain Forms in 1984 to Imperial Oil Ltd. – the seller on Wednesday. Klinkoff also predicted that a touring exhibition being organized by the National Gallery of Canada could prompt a similar surge in interest in the works of James Wilson Morrice (1865 – 1924).
"My guess is that if a Lawren Harris is worth $10-million, a Morrice could be worth $20-million," Klinkhoff said. Morrice, an early Canadian modernist, stands one step behind the Group of Seven in public consciousness, though the Montreal-born painter "opened our eyes to things no one ever thought of painting," as A.Y. Jackson recalled.
The consensus is that this sale signifies a raising of boats in the Canadian market, dominated for years by Harris and abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.
"Harris has always been the priciest of the Group of Seven," said David Silcox, art-world maven and former head of Sotheby's Canada. "He was one of the very few major Canadian artists who kept changing throughout their careers, and that gives the value of his work more durability."
Many looked to more immediate causes for Wednesday's record sale at Heffel Fine Art Auction House, which fetched handsome prices for other Harris works besides the record-breaking Mountain Forms. A recent Art Gallery of Ontario touring exhibition, The Idea of North, took Harris's work to Boston and Los Angeles, where his worth was talked up by comedian and show co-curator Steve Martin, who owns three small works by the painter.
"It's maybe ironic that it took Steve Martin to bring this quality of work to the attention of the world," Alan Klinkhoff said. Indeed, the Heffel sale may be a notable sign of the power of celebrity taste-makers in a realm formerly dominated by private dealers, curators and art historians.
Martin's cheerleading and Harris's recent exposure in the United States has definitely raised awareness of his work outside Canada. After The Idea of North closed at L.A.'s Hammer Museum last year, the Los Angeles Times ran a report of another Heffel auction that achieved what was then a record sum for a Harris painting – $4.6-million for Mountain and Glacier.
Harris may seem an odd contender for art-world stardom in 2016. He took a mystical view of the world, saw painting as a largely spiritual quest and restricted his palette for paintings such as Mountain Forms in line with Theosophist theories about colour. "Visible nature is but a distorted reflection of a more perfect world," he wrote in the 1920s. His tendency to look for ideal forms led ultimately to the late abstract work to be seen in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection's forthcoming exhibition, Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries.
Anyone just catching up with Harris, however, might be hard-pressed to find an opening in the market for his work. Large caches of work by Harris are already locked away in public collections at the AGO, the McMichael, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Vancouver.
"Major canvases like Mountain Forms are few and far between [on the open market]," said Robert Heffel, vice-president and co-owner of Heffel Fine Art. "There are still some Harrises out there in private hands, but this may be the pinnacle for us."
Martin's advocacy helped, Heffel said, but he called it just one part of a larger ecology that includes exhibitions and other media representations of the artist. The overall success of Wednesday's sale, which grossed $41-million [including 18-per-cent buyers' premiums on all lots], made it "a monumental night for Canadian art," he said.