Skip to main content

Heffel Fine Art Auction House, the new kids on the block of the high-end Canadian art-auction market, triumphed this year over its older, more established competitors, grossing an estimated $13.5-million from two live sales, the first held in Vancouver in May, the second in Toronto in November.

The Vancouver-based Heffel, not yet 10 years old, decisively beat two venerable Toronto houses, 37-year-old Sotheby's Canada and 19-year-old Joyner Waddington's, who, with Heffel, are the Big Three in the country's resale art market. Indeed, Heffel's successful sale of about 185 lots at its second and final auction of the year, on Nov. 25, set a new record for the most money grossed ($8.5-million) at a single-session live auction of Canadian art. The highlight of the sale was the $920,000 fetched for a 1946 seascape by West Coast master E. J. Hughes.

The Heffel total, including buyers' premiums, bested the previous chart-topper of $6.85-million established by Sotheby's, in association with Ritchie's, on Feb. 25, 2002. That earlier feat was accomplished largely by the sale, for $5.06-million, of a single work, Paul Kane's little-seen Scene in the Northwest -- Portrait (1846).

Sotheby's -- which had the best sales tally of the Big Three in 2003 -- had hoped to pass the $13-million mark in annual sales this year with its Nov. 22 auction. That expectation was vested largely in another rare Kane, Encampment, Winnipeg River, painted around 1850, which Sotheby's hoped would fetch as much as $2.5-million, perhaps more. However, the oil failed to sell, with the result that Sotheby's is posting total gross revenues of about $10.6-million from its two sales. Sotheby's presented a total of almost 410 lots in its spring and fall catalogues, of which about 15 per cent were declared unsold or withdrawn from sale.

Joyner, the only one of the Big Three to hold auctions over two days in both the spring and fall, advertised almost 1,100 lots in its two catalogues, of which about 20 per cent went unsold or were withdrawn from sale. Joyner's gross for the year was approximately $8.9-million. (Heffel, meanwhile, advertised a total of about 430 lots in its two catalogues, selling approximately 93 per cent of these.)

While the non-sale of Kane's Encampment was the big disappointment of 2004 in general, and for Sotheby's in particular, no one, at least for the time being, is seeing its failure as a harbinger of the much-anticipated "correction" of the bull run that has distinguished the Canadian resale market since 1996. While full-size, artistically compelling canvases by the original Group of Seven (1920-26) -- heretofore the engine of the resale market -- are becoming more scarce, buyers are compensating either by paying more for whatever Group sketches come to market, or by shifting their attention to relatively neglected or underrated artists.

Joyner Waddington's offered two cogent illustrations of those phenomena this year. On June 1, it sold Lake in Temagami, a 30 centimetre by 37.5 centimetre oil sketch by Group founder Lawren Harris, for an astonishing $470,000, exclusive of buyer's premium. This was almost five times the work's high-end presale estimate, and a record for a sketch by a Group member. In raw real-estate terms, that was about $420 a square centimetre.

On Nov. 23, Baie St. Paul sous la neige, an ample, arresting canvas by Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888-1970), a Québécois contemporary of the Group, was hammered down for $330,000, exclusive of premium. This shattered the record of $160,000 for a Fortin set 16 years ago. Joyner knew it would do well, setting its estimate at $200,000 to $300,000, but spirited bidding from potential Quebec buyers gunned the action past that threshold.

In the last three years, the two Heffel brothers, David and Robert, have aggressively expanded their national reach, setting up offices in Toronto, Ottawa and (starting in January) Montreal, in an effort to secure more and better consignments. (Their auction business is an offshoot of the successful art dealership started by their father in 1978.) Their ambition seems to be paying off, if the results of their Nov. 25 auction are an indication.

Not only did their company set a record for a Hughes, it sold a modest-sized A. Y. Jackson oil on canvas, Country Road, L'Islet, St. Fabien (1935) , for $368,000 (including premium); that surpassed the previous record for a Jackson oil, $363,000, set in 1988. (That earlier work measured 81.3 cm by 101.5 cm; the new record holder is 53.3 cm by 66 cm).

Other Eastern Canadian artists whose works set records with Heffel last month include Helen McNicoll, Lilias Torrance Newton and Kathleen Moir Morris, all originally based in Montreal. At the same time, Heffel held on to its dominance of the Emily Carr market, taking on 15 consignments by the British Columbia native in 2004, and selling all of them, for a total of more than $3.6-million, including premium.

Sotheby's, in association with Ritchie's, continued to present the most eclectic but tightly tailored consignments of the Big Three in 2004. More than Joyner and Heffel, it is trying to nudge buyers toward modern (that is, abstract or post-Second World War) and contemporary art. The results so far have been mixed. In May, for instance, it offered Chemin d'hiver, a large painting from 1984 by the highly regarded Jean-Paul Lemieux. The oil carried a presale estimate of $120,000-$150,000, but when the hammer came down, bidding had stopped at just $85,000.

More positively, it set a record last month for veteran abstractionist Fritz Brandtner, selling his colourful Burst into Life for $55,000, which was $15,000 more than its high-end estimate. It also demonstrated that work by Jean-Paul Riopelle, who died two years ago, can still command plush prices -- provided the painting was done in what is regarded as his choicest period (1948-55). On Nov. 22, Sotheby's got $460,000 for an untitled 1951 Riopelle -- not a record by any means (that, $1.6-million, was set in 1989) but an indication that the artist whose prices epitomized both the last big Canadian art boom (in the late 1980s) and its last big crash (1990-94) remains of interest to well-heeled connoisseurs.

However, as with its two main competitors, Sotheby's continues to rely on inventory from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th to make its day. Its most successful painting this year, for example, was a large, luscious pre-Group of Seven oil by Lawren Harris, titled Winter in the Northern Woods. Canadian collectors love winter scenes by Group of Seven artists, and their affection held firm with this Harris from 1915. It sold for $1.4-million ($1.58-million with premium) -- enough to earn the canvas the slot as the second-most valuable Harris ever sold at auction.

Other "premodern" artists who did well for Sotheby's included James Morrice ($320,000 for a 1909 work), Clarence Gagnon ($600,000 for a 1922 painting), David Milne (a record $287,500, for a 1916 oil; bought by Toronto collector Kenneth Thomson, it eventually will be part of the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario) and Anne Douglas Savage (a record $120,000, for a 1927 painting).

By U.S. and European standards, the resale market for Canadian art remains immature. Yes, as one veteran art observer notes, works of "interwar modernism" and "postwar abstraction" are "on the move" here. But for the time being, Canadian buyers overwhelmingly continue to prefer representational paintings done between 1885 and 1935 by now long-dead white males, and works by Emily Carr (1871-1945). Indeed, of the top 15 Canadian paintings sold at Canadian auctions ever, only one ( Fishboats, Rivers Inlet, from 1946) is by a still-living artist (E. J. Hughes), and he'll be 92 next year.