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Paintings by some of Canada's top artists get chilly reception at auction

Detail from Tom Thomson painting Early Snow, Algonquin Park. Sotheby's

There wasn't much joy among Sotheby's Canada managers and employees at the conclusion of the company's spring sale of important Canadian art Thursday in Toronto.

Sotheby's had 198 lots up for live bidding at the Royal Ontario Museum, carrying a total pre-sale estimate of between $4.7-million and $6.9-million. By the time Hugh Hildesley, the New York-based chair of the company's Canadian advisory committee, hammered down the last lot of the evening, he'd managed to sell only about 135 of them for a total of slightly more than $4.02-million. And this included the commission that Sotheby's charges on the hammer price of each successful bid (20 per cent on the first $50,000 of the hammer, 15 per cent on the balance). Last year at this time, with 30 per cent fewer lots for sale than it had Thursday, Sotheby's grossed $7.4-million, including the buyer's premium.

Clearly something was out of joint. Or more aptly some things, namely paintings by some of the biggest brand names in Canadian art - Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, Jean-Paul Riopelle - that were expected to realize, at the very least, a total of more than $1.3-million but ended up being declared unsold. These included a large, untitled Riopelle abstract from 1954 that, pre-sale, was carrying an estimate of $800,000-$1.2-million yet failed to elicit a single bid from the floor, and a recently discovered Tom Thomson oil sketch, Early Snow, Algonquin Park, that saw bidding sputter to a halt at the $425,000 mark, $25,000 shy of the low-end of its pre-sale estimate. The Harris, Abstract Painting #98 (1937), in the meantime, flamed out at $75,000 - exactly one-half the high-end of its pre-sale estimate.

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Of course, it wasn't all gloom and doom. A petite café scene by James W. Morrice, completed in 1913, sold for $152,000, almost double its high-end estimate of $70,000. Similarly, a 1973 Christopher Pratt, French Door, fetched $140,500, an auction record for the veteran artist and well above its $60,000-$80,000 pre-sale estimate, while Fair Weather Signals, a lyrical oil-and-pencil sketch by Vancouver's B.C. Binning (1909-1976), sold for $106,000, well over its pre-sale estimated value of $30,000-$40,000.

By and large, though, the works that did sell sold within and often just below Sotheby's estimates, with only a couple (or three) handfuls earning more than their high-end estimates. Still, Sotheby's Canada president David Silcox wasn't acknowledging that the good times that have defined the resale market for Canadian art in the last six or seven years had ended. "I think there's quite a lot of good material still to come," he said in an interview. "These things do come and go depending on the four Ds - death, debt, divorce and downsizing. There's always an uneven flow of things in the course of one year."

Winnipeg-Toronto art dealer Shaun Mayberry said he felt "the quality of the work overall was quite irregular" and the rather listless, often sporadic bidding reflected this. "If we compare it to previous auctions over the last several years, we've seen an unparalleled number of high-level works come to the market and they've sucked up a lot of money from collectors. Collectors now are becoming a little more discerning. What we saw tonight were second-tier and third-tier level pieces . . . and there's less interest in those things."

Both Mayberry and Silcox were quick to stress that the lacklustre performance of the Thomson sketch doesn't indicate a precipitous softening of the market for works by the progenitor of the Group of Seven. (In November 2009, a Harris sketch sold for a record $2.75-million.) Early Snow, Algonquin Park "is an amazing work," Silcox observed. "But I think it doesn't have the flashy presence of, say, a Thomson of a flaming sunset with a pine tree in front of it. It doesn't have, as they say in the real estate business, curb appeal, or at least the curb appeal a lot of Thomson collectors look for."

Mayberry agreed, calling it more a "museum painting" than something a private collector might covet. In addition, it was painted in 1914 whereas collectors tend to be most keen on works Thomson did in the 12 to 18 months before his death in 1917. "You're still going to see certain Thomson paintings sell for $900,000, $1-million, $1.2-million, $1.5-million, even more . .. [but]it's probably going to have to be from the 1916-1917 period."

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