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visual arts

Detail from Man on Verandah, painted in 1953 by Alex Colville

A record-setting performance by a 57-year-old tempera painting was the highlight of Thursday's much-anticipated auction in Toronto of Canadian art by Vancouver-headquartered Heffel Fine Art.

Man on Verandah, painted in 1953 by Nova Scotia master Alex Colville, sold for an astonishing $1.29-million, including the 17 per cent premium charged on the hammer price ($1.1-million) to an unidentified telephone bidder from Europe. This was far above the painting's presale estimate of $400,000-$600,000, and it demolished the old auction record for a Colville, $690,000, established by Heffel in May 2007. Also, since Mr. Colville is 90, it's the highest auction result ever recorded for a living Canadian painter. (The artist, however, will see none of the proceeds as Canada, unlike most European countries, does not have a law that awards an artist or his/her estate a portion of a work's hammer price.) A minimalist profile of a seated elderly man gazing out to sea, Man on Verandah was one of about 146 lots that Heffel sold Thursday for a total of almost $14-million, including premium. While this was far off the auctioneer's record for the single most valuable live auction, by dollars, in Canadian history ($23-million, set in 2007), it was enough to affirm Heffel's continued dominance of the fine-art resale market.

Indeed, its $14-million haul was more than four times what one of its competitors, Joyner Canadian Fine Art, earned earlier in the week at its sale and almost three times what Sotheby's Canada garnered Tuesday evening.

Since 2008, Heffel has split each of its spring and fall sales in two, hosting an afternoon auction of post-Second World War and contemporary sale first, followed by an evening sale of what might be called classic Canadian art - works by the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, David Milne and artists of their ilk.

Among its post-war offerings Heffel had especially high hopes for an large untitled 1955 canvas from Quebec's master abstractionist, Jean-Paul Riopelle. The oil went into bidding carrying a presale estimate of $800,000-$1.2-million and there were expectations it would eclipse the $1.7-million record, set in 2006, for a Riopelle sold at auction in Canada. It failed. Nevertheless, the $1,111,500 it realized was impressive. Moreover, the "private Ontario collector" who reportedly bought it is none other than Gerry Schwartz, overseer of private equity investor Onex Corp. which, before Thursday, had assets of more than $6.5-billion.

More disappointing was the result achieved by a modest-sized oil sketch done in the high Arctic in 1930 by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris. His Arctic sketches are rare - it's believed there are no more than 40 of them - and this one served as the basis for one of Harris's major canvases, North Shore, Baffin Island II, now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada. With a presale estimate of $700,000-$900,000, the Harris seemed poised to earn big bucks. But the bidding, which started at $500,000, was short and not so sweet, ending at $625,000. The work was declared unsold.

Winnipeg art dealer Shaun Mayberry succeeded in bring smiles to Heffel principals David and Robert Heffel. He placed the winning bid of $160,000 ($187,200 with premium) on a small Ontario landscape sketch, done in 1918 by Mr. Harris's Group of Seven compatriot, J.E.H. MacDonald. This was twice high end of the sketch's presale estimate of $60,000-$80,000. Mr. Mayberry also scored one of Mr. Harris's famous Toronto street scenes, a 1921 canvas called Houses, Winter, City Painting V. Presale the oil's estimate was $600,000-$800,000; Mr. Mayberry paid $702,000, including premium.

Heffel had the most Harrises of any of the Big Three auction houses up for sale this week, including six from the estate of prominent Toronto collector Theodosia Dawes Bond Thornton (1915-2009) and two, including the Baffin Island sketch, consigned by the estate of Mary Breckenridge, another Torontonian (1911-2010). The auctioneer also had four David Milne paintings (three landscapes, one street scene) up for bidding. Two of these, a double-sided watercolour on paper from 1916 and Green Hillside, Boston Corners, a 1920 oil on canvas, did exceptionally well relative to their estimates ($30,000-$50,000 and $70,000-$90,000, respectively). The first earned almost $200,000, including premium, the second $280,800.