Jaws dropped last month when Steve Martin suggested that a behemoth of a Lawren Harris Rocky Mountain painting could sell for $10-million when it is auctioned Wednesday in Toronto.
Attention was paid because the Hollywood actor-author-comedian knows his Harris. Not only does he own three modest-sized canvases by the Group of Seven founding member, he was lead curator and chief promoter of a well-received touring exhibition of about 30 Harrises that visited Los Angeles's Hammer Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (where it drew almost 80,000 visitors) and Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario between October, 2015, and September of this year.
Included in the show, called The Idea of North, and featured on the exhibition catalogue back cover was Mountain Forms, the 152-by-178-centimetre oil-on-canvas painting from 1926 that Heffel Fine Art Auction House is selling on Nov. 23. Heffel announced the consignment barely more than two weeks after the show closed its heralded run in Toronto.
Calgary-based Imperial Oil Ltd., which acquired the painting in 1984, has been "streamlining" its corporate art collection since 2014. The Heffel consignment is one of three Harrises that Imperial is deaccessioning; last December, it donated Algoma Waterfall (undated) to Calgary's Glenbow Museum and a 1921 Toronto urban scene, Billboard Jazz, to the National Gallery.
The published estimate for Mountain Forms is a hefty $3-million to $5-million. Yet even before Martin voiced his estimate, many observers had been pooh-poohing the Heffel calculation as conservative, cautious. The more likely hammer price, they chattered, would be circa $7-million. Pricey, yes, but comfortably Canadian. Enough, too, to finally and thoroughly eclipse the record (of $4.6-million on the hammer, $5.062-million including the buyer's premium) held for almost 15 years by Paul Kane's 1845 Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy as the most valuable Canadian painting sold at auction.
But Steve Martin's estimate of $10-million – nearly $12-million once you factor the commission that will be charged to the buyer … there seemed, seems something almost, well, American about that. And maybe that's the point. Was Martin perhaps wishing or even predicting that Mountain Forms might finally break the Canadian monopoly of the Harris resale market and sell to a U.S. collector or institution?
Clearly, Canada can easily afford to see Mountain Forms – a prime-period Harris if there ever was one – find a new home in foreign climes. Indeed, such a circumstance would, in part, be the fulfilment of Martin's raison d'être for The Idea of North, namely to introduce to the United States an under-recognized but world-class artist and to recast Harris as a North American painter fully in step with Georgia O'Keeffe, Rockwell Kent, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley in the modernist narrative.
Harris was a ferociously prolific painter, but there's a paucity of his work, the stronger work, in U.S. private and public collections. In contrast, "Canada is rich in our public collections with Harris paintings, no doubt about that," said Sarah Stanners, director, curatorial and collections, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.
The McMichael boasts 96 Harrises among its permanent holdings, including 76 paintings. (The gallery, not coincidentally, is doing its own Martin-esque Harris show next year, focused on the artist's foray into abstraction in the mid-1930s, titled Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries.)
One McMichael Harris, 1930's Mount Lefroy, is, at 133.5 by 153.5 cm, another Rocky Mountain behemoth very much in the key of Mountain Forms and, to some eyes, the superior work.
Meanwhile, the AGO counts 207 Harrises in its permanent collection, including three major Rocky Mountain canvases and five major Lake Superior scenes. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa has 81 works, including 49 paintings; the Vancouver Art Gallery, which mounted a major Harris survey in 2014, has 82.
In short, Harris's stature as "Canada's most important painter," to quote Martin's advocacy, is secure, our institutional and private collections sufficiently provisioned to illustrate the superlative. But if we feel Harris is deserving of a more international reputation, that ambition might be better served, at this moment of rising interest, by letting a painting such as Mountain Forms leave the country, preferably to the United States.
Andrew Hunter would be comfortable if this transpired. The AGO's curator of Canadian art, he collaborated closely with Martin on The Idea of North and oversaw the more expansive version of the show that appeared at the AGO. "I would have no problem with this painting going to an American buyer," he told me recently, "preferably an American institution, as I think it would be beneficial to Canadian art."
Admittedly, "I'm not sure my colleagues across the country would agree," he said. But, to his eye, "the best work needs to be seen," and putting a significant Harris in a major U.S. public collection – one interviewee suggested a good home would be the Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which currently has no Harrises in its permanent collection – "is the best way to raise the profile of a Canadian artist."
When it came time to assemble The Idea of North, Hunter said, he was "familiar" with several "significant later abstract Harrises" in U.S. hands, but none from the 1920s and '30s dealing with the Rocky Mountain/Lake Superior/Arctic scenes at the heart of the exhibition.
Charles Hill, former curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery, noted that American interest in foreign artists "comes and goes." For instance, the Detroit Institute of Art once had a major Harris house painting in its collection, only to deaccession it to the Art Gallery of Windsor in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Hill said he was "pleased" with the interest in Harris generated by Martin's enthusiasm, knowledge and celebrity. But he wondered "how long it will last." At auction, "would [an American institution] really pay [millions] for an artist who is otherwise unrepresented in its collection? Is Harris's position in terms of a definition of North American modernism sufficiently strong for an [American] institution to really make a commitment? I don't think so, frankly."
A number of structural factors in Canada make the acquisition of Mountain Forms by a non-Canadian at once attractive and somewhat onerous.
It's attractive because the Canadian dollar is so weak against its U.S. counterpart and the British pound. Attractive, too, because Canadian institutions have paltry to non-existent art-acquisition budgets (the National Gallery's, for example, is only $8-million), hence limiting the competition. At the same time, top-notch blue-chip Canadian art is generally considered a bargain, even at $5-million a painting, and Canadian auction-goers historically have bid in kind. As Hill remarked to me, "All you have to do [as a foreign buyer] is get the price up high enough and no Canadian will bid against you."
The onerousness comes from Canadian public policy. Since Mountain Forms is a) more than 50 years old, b) almost certain to sell for more than $30,000 and c) the creation of a dead person (Harris died in 1970 at the age of 85), an export permit would be required under the Canadian Cultural Property Export and Import Act if the painting is bound for a foreign destination.
"Expert examiners" could, in turn, deem the painting to be of "outstanding significance and national importance" and impose a hold of three months to two years on its export. This is to give a "Canadian collecting institution" the chance to purchase the work at a price equal to or greater than what the foreign owner paid. Historically, it has only been the rare institution that has had that amount of "fair cash" available, as Charles Hill outlined, and the artifact has been exported.
Of course, the owner has the opportunity to appeal the permit refusal and, with respect to Mountain Forms, he or she could argue that Canada already is adequately upholstered with fine Harris mountain paintings. However, knowing that such a gauntlet might have to be run could be enough of a turnoff for some foreign bidders to bow out.
For Toronto collector, philanthropist and art historian Ash Prakash, "the government of the day" has to come to terms with a "fundamental issue" regarding the export of Canadian art: "Does it want our art to be admired and respected internationally or not?" If it does, it faces two options: "Step up its own commitment to acquire its best examples as and when they appear in the market and preserve them for display in our museums. Or get out of the way and let the open markets determine who gets to own them."
After all, he observed, French art "is bought and sold around the world, yet this has hardly hurt French culture. On the contrary: It's served to attract millions of tourists to French museums every year to see even more of what they've seen of it in their homelands."
According to Toronto art dealer Shaun Mayberry, the "problem" with the Harris market is that it's a pent-up house – there's no lack of demand but a lack of "enough good paintings to satisfy [it]. This is the main reason his work continues to escalate in value," even without, so far, an influx of American or European connoisseurs, speculators or institutions. Exhibitions such as The Idea of North "have contributed to heightening awareness over all, especially amongst newbies who don't have the luxury of the AGO permanent collection on their doorstep to inspire them," he said.
Mayberry got a satisfying taste of the undiminished public passion for Harris at the recent Art Toronto fair. There, he sold A Fantasy, one of the painter's proto-abstract works from the late 1920s, for an impressive $1.2-million. Three clients, all Canadians, circled the work before one committed. "I do have one U.S. collector looking [for Harrises], and there are others," he added. "But most have so little experience with Harris that they tend to hold back."
Mountain Forms will probably sell to a Canadian bidder, likely an individual or family. Maybe after several years, it will be donated to a Canadian museum such as the Glenbow or the Thunder Bay Art Gallery or Owen Sound's Tom Thomson Art Gallery. In the meantime, it almost certainly will set a Canadian auction record while becoming the seventh Harris to enter the top 10 Canadian paintings sold at auction (all seven Harrises have done this in just seven years).
Meanwhile, the McMichael's Sarah Stanners still entertains the notion that some day an important Harris could end up in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art or the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington (the last is, in fact, named after the former Canadian oil and mining tycoon/art collector Joseph Hirshhorn). "I'd be kind of scared and put off if [Mountain Forms] went into a private collection because there's no guarantee that I'd be able to borrow if for an exhibition, whereas I would be able to, much more feasibly, if [it] was in an important American collection.
"There are certain American collections that are markers of great success," she continued. "And I actually think there's a certain amount of patriotism to want to see our best Canadian artists shining in great American public institutions."
Heffel Fine Art's sale of Lawren Harris's Mountain Forms and 59 other lots of historic Canadian art begins at 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 23 at the Design Exchange, 234 Bay St., Toronto (heffel.com).