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A little-seen painting by Canada's highest-priced artist could find a new home in the United States or Britain if a Canadian bidder doesn't prevail at a much-anticipated auction in Toronto next week.

The oil-on-canvas, Encampment, Winnipeg River, completed by Paul Kane in the 1850s, is going into Monday's auction, organized by Sotheby's Canada in association with Ritchie's, with an estimated worth of $2-million to $2.5-million. If that is realized, Encampment will rank as the second-most valuable Canadian artwork ever sold at auction. First place is currently held by another Kane, Scene in the Northwest, that Sotheby's sold, to a Canadian, for a record $4.6-million (excluding buyer's premium) in February, 2002.

David Silcox, president of Sotheby's Canada, and Gabrielle Peacock, director of fine art for Ritchie's, report "serious interest" from non-Canadian buyers in Encampment and have sent more than a half-dozen colour transparencies of the painting outside Canada. It's not the first time Kane has elicited such interest: In fact, it was the 1958 shipment of "a piano-sized crateful" of 230 Kane sketches and paintings from Winnipeg to the home of Lutcher Stark, a Texas oil multimillionaire, that first alerted Canadians to what author Fred Bodsworth called "the scandal of our lost art treasures." That sale, for $250,000 (or roughly $1.7-million in today's Canadian currency), set in motion both a heightened awareness of the need to retain some of Canada's most valuable artifacts and the legislation to accomplish it.

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If the successful bidder for Encampment turns out to be a non-Canadian, the purchase could rouse the interest of Canadian Heritage's cultural-property directorate. Federal legislation permits a Canadian artwork deemed historically significant to stay in the country anywhere from three months to two years after a foreigner buys it. The intention is to give a Canadian buyer -- if one exists -- the chance to make "a fair cash offer" to the foreign owner. If none is received within 90 days, the work usually receives an export permit; if a valid offer is received but the owner declines it, the work can be denied export for at least two years.

Most Kane paintings are in institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ottawa's National Gallery and, as a result of the 1958 sale, the Stark Museum in Orange, Tex., near the Gulf of Mexico. A good Kane from a private collection rarely comes to auction and, when it does, the bidding is often intense and spans continents.

So it was with Scene in the Northwest, a wintry portrait of British-Canadian explorer-scientist John Henry Lefroy that was brought to auction here from the British manor house that had been its home for more than a century. It sold to Canada's wealthiest individual and most famous art connoisseur, Kenneth Thomson -- but only after he fended off tough competition from a U.S. under bidder. So it likely will be with Encampment, a lyrical depiction of canoe-bound Saulteaux Indians visiting a Hudson's Bay camp, set against a spectacular June sunset.

The painting has been in an anonymous Toronto collector's home since he bought it in 1964 from the famous art dealer G. Blair Laing. Its purchase price was never disclosed, but it's estimated to have been as little as $15,000, or roughly $65,000 in today's currency. Laing himself took possession of the painting at an estate sale involving a relative of one of Kane's greatest patrons, Sir George Allan, a prominent Toronto politician and founding president of the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Allan died in Toronto in 1901; the Irish-born Kane died, at 61, in the same city in 1871.

One mitigating factor against the need to keep the Encampment being auctioned next week in Canada is that the work, 73.6 centimetres wide, 50.8 cm deep, is Kane's slightly less crisp copy of a 76 cm-by-49 cm painting in the permanent collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. As a result of a gift early in the last century, the ROM has 100 Kane oils plus an estimated 360 field sketches in pencil and oil from the Allan collection, many of which the ROM plans to put on permanent display when its current renovation/expansion is finished.

Interestingly, the 1846 oil-on-paper Kane sketch that's the basis of both Encampments was part of the set of 230 works that Kane's grandson shipped to Stark in 1958 and now rests in a vault 200 kilometres east of Houston.

As a professional artist with a family to support, Kane worked up painting-sized duplicates of at least a dozen of the scenes and subjects he sketched during his famous 1845-1848 trek to western Canada with Hudson's Bay Company traders. In late 2002, about 10 months after the record-setting sale of Scene in the Northwest, one of these duplicates, a portrait of a Mississauga chief named Maungwudaus completed in 1851, went to auction in Calgary. The last time the same work had been auctioned, in 1999 in Toronto, its presale estimate was $150,000 and the eventual selling price $475,000, a record for a Kane. The Calgary auction saw Portrait of Maungwudaus go for $2.2-million -- enough to give it second-place standing, with Lawren Harris's Baffin Island (which had been sold in 2001, to Thomson), as the country's second-most valuable artwork.

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In both the 1999 and 2002 sales, the purchaser was a U.S. citizen. In 1999, the anonymous buyer attempted to get the painting out of the country, but was turned down because, under the Canadian Cultural Property Export and Import Act, it was deemed to be of "national importance" and "outstanding significance." While a Canadian eventually offered the buyer more than the purchase price, the buyer declined it, and the painting stayed in Canada, as a long-term loan with the National Gallery.

Three years later, there was a reversal: An export permit was granted -- on behalf of the alleged winning bidder, Gerald Peters, the noted U.S. gallerist with locations in Santa Fe, N.M.; Dallas and New York -- because no Canadian was able to come up with the millions required. Also, the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board seemed to accept the argument of Calgary auctioneer Douglas Levis, which was: "Canada has a reasonable number of art pieces to go around and there is another identical portrait of Maungwudaus [in the ROM] so why not let it go?"

Sotheby's Silcox says "it's entirely possible" that the Maungwudaus precedent will pertain here. At the same time, "I certainly hope that a Canadian prevails."

Whether Encampment remains in Canada may finally depend entirely on the press-shy Thomson. At 81, this Torontonian has been the only Canadian collector to pay more than $2-million for a canvas at auction, and he has done so twice. Certainly, the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg or the National Gallery doesn't have that kind of acquisition budget. If Thomson has a profound interest in Encampmentand the will to buy, as he did in 2002 with Kane's Scene, then the painting could very well stay and end up in the Art Gallery of Ontario, to which Thomson is donating most of his Canadian collection in 2008. If he doesn't, there are dozens of big-buck U.S. collectors with a passion for pictures with tents, fires and canoe-paddling natives in rugged settings. (Contacted this month, a representative for Peters in Santa Fe said the gallery was aware of Encampment but, "we haven't decided if we're going to bid on it yet.") Kenneth Lister, curator of the Paul Kane collection at the ROM, says he "personally hates to see any Paul Kane painting go out of Canada. The ideal with this one would be to have it go to the Manitoba Museum." But he knows that's not going to happen.

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