Skip to main content

For most Canadians, Inuit art is something fleetingly encountered in the airport gift shop, or what politicians seem content to give foreign dignitaries when the collected works of Lucy Maud Montgomery simply won't do.

In the past four years, however, this overlooked world of soapstone carvings, drawings, wall hangings and prints has quietly experienced a heightened appreciation among Canadian collectors. The art is also selling for more money and enjoying a greater prominence in our major art institutions.The National Gallery in Ottawa, for instance, acquired its first Inuit art -- four sculptures -- in 1956 and by 1985 had 103 artifacts in its permanent collection. That number now is 1,319, including 467 prints and 466 sculptures. Over the past 12 years, the gallery has curated solo shows for at least a dozen Inuit artists.

Very nice, of course. But in dollars and cents terms, it's been Toronto-based Waddington's Auctioneers and Appraisers that's simultaneously reflected and goosed the upward trajectory of the Inuit market. Four years ago, it sold 720 lots of Inuit art for a gross total of $1.2-million -- the first time the firm, which held the country's first large-scale auction of Inuit art in 1978, passed the million-dollar threshold for Inuit artifacts. Among the highlights was the $58,000 paid for The Enchanted Owl, a 1960 print from an edition of 50 by Cape Dorset's Kenojuak Ashevak -- still the record for any Canadian print sold at auction.

Since then, Waddington's sales have consistently garnered in excess of $1-million, including a record $2.1-million last year. Unsurprisingly, expectations are high that sales will reach well over $1-million today and tomorrow as it puts almost 900 artifacts on the block in Toronto. Several of these pieces, most notably a 1963 sculpture by David Ikutaaq of a father holding his child, are expected to ignite bidding wars with presale estimates for Ikutaaq's piece between $20,000 and $30,000. No one is going to be surprised if they fetch three or four times that -- prices unheard of only seven or eight years ago.

Duncan McLean, Waddington's veteran auctioneer of Inuit art, says that, by volume, 70 per cent of his buyers are Canadian, while the remainder are from the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Croatia and Switzerland. However, it's the foreign buyer who's more likely to spend the big bucks, not the Canuck.

"Ten years ago, some Canadians got all pissy about this," he said last week. "It was like, 'They're buying our stuff.' But these people had to get their heads around the fact it was undervalued. They'd say $10,000 or $12,000 -- what the Europeans were paying -- was too expensive. Yet they'd turn around and pay that much for a Lalique vase, but not on Inuit art."

Meanwhile, "the offshore collectors, in the space of 10 years, have gone from buying shiny green bears carved from soapstone to where they're now after things of a minimalist, primitivistic style. They got sophisticated fast."

On the resale market "what's not selling is muskox, bears and seals," he observed. "They're pretty but they're also pretty boring. The more sophisticated you get, the less you're going to be turned on by a bear. People now are looking for something with power in it, some content, some spirit."

To illustrate, McLean pointed to a couple of smooth, nicely proportioned soapstone ursines, each of which is expected to fetch between $900 and $1,500 this week. Then he pulled out a hefty hunk of weathered whalebone almost a metre high that had been carved into the forms of a mother and a crying child by the late Baker Lake sculptor Judas Ullulaq. It's a tough, raw piece. Its presale estimate? $15,000-$20,000. "This," he observed, "is where it's at."

With new art, things are rather the reverse. According to Toronto dealer Patricia Feheley, who's been handling Inuit art for more than three decades, 60 per cent of her customers for contemporary Inuit art are from outside Canada. Now more Canadians are getting in on the action. As recently as two years ago, it was non-Canadians who represented 70 per cent of her business.

"Our prices are still insanely low," she says, especially when compared with what Australian aboriginal works and first nations' art from the American Southwest can fetch. In 2001, Sotheby's sold a 19th-century Navajo rug for more than $400,000 (U.S.). In her gallery, an intricate stone sculpture completed earlier this year by Baffin Island's Jacoposie Tiglik is priced at $14,000, while two pencil-crayon-and-ink drawings by Annie Pootoogook, 36, of Cape Dorset, are selling for $600 and $800 each -- and this for someone who's getting a one-person show next year at Toronto's cutting-edge Power Plant gallery, a first for an Inuit artist. With her scenes of contemporary life in the circumpolar region -- a recent work is titled Watching the Iraqi War on TV -- Pootoogook represents the new face of Inuit art. Her work is "attracting a new and different audience," says Feheley, one that "has never bought Inuit art" until now and is interested in more than "walruses and hunters and memory art."

True, the old themes and images still sell, she says, as attested by the undiminished popularity of the Cape Dorset Print Collection, sets of which have been released every October since 1959. (Waddington's sold a portfolio of all 39 prints from the 1959 release for more than $160,000 in 2001.)Yet even here, change is afoot: This year for the first time, a Pootoogook lithograph titled Brief Case is among the 32 prints from Cape Dorset. And it features an almost whimsical, Warhol-esque series of 12 sets of men's underwear, printed in colours such as purple, yellow and pink.

No Inuit artist, with the possible exception of 78-year-old Kenojuak Ashevak, has achieved the name recognition or financial heft of a Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, Robert Bateman or Alex Colville. In part, this is because Inuit art is still a young art. The Inuit began to produce art, primarily stone carvings, in a self-conscious, market-oriented way only in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Printmaking was introduced by Toronto artist, writer and promoter James Houston in 1957.) Even then, for a large number of Inuit it was regarded as part-time work that allowed them to earn some cash while leaving plenty of time for hunting and fishing.

Distance, too, has been a hindrance, plus Inuit artists continue to rely heavily on the co-operatives that were established in the late 1950s. Under this regime, an artist takes a sculpture or drawing to the local co-op and exchanges it for money, whereupon the work is consigned to a dealer such as Patricia Feheley, Vancouver's Spirit Wrestler Gallery or North of Sixty Art Ltd. in New Brunswick.

Feheley says she remains "a very strong supporter of the co-op system," but she acknowledges that for an Inuit artist to "cross over" to a large, southern audience, as Norval Morrisseau did, he or she will have to work with dealers and galleries. "Down here, artists starve; they wait tables; they take odd jobs; they make art and they get paid usually only when the dealer sells. Up there, you don't have to wait for the money, and even if you wanted things to be different, there's not much opportunity to wait tables to support your art."

Feheley is adamant that superior art is being made by the contemporary Inuit, but acknowledges it is often overshadowed by the great works of the 1950s and 1960s from Kiawak Ashoona, John Tiktak, Pitseolak and Andy Miki, most of whom are now dead.

Waddington's McLean, however, feels that "there's more and more chaff nowadays, less and less wheat" -- which is why he likes his consignments to predate 1975 and, preferably, 1965 when "you had hundreds and hundreds of great artists in a population of thousands." Even a strong older work by an anonymous artist can pull as much as $30,000 at auction.

If Inuit art is going to flourish or even survive, says Feheley, it has to evolve. "People have predicted the demise of Inuit art forever," yet artists keep showing up, often using materials anathema to previous generations -- mixed media, aquatint, pastel, oil stick. "If the art doesn't evolve, it'll die anyway because it'll be derivative. But all indications are that today's younger generation is creating their own memory art out of today's reality, which is a combination of, say, eating raw seal while watching Peter Mansbridge on the colour TV."