The staples of the Canadian fine art resale market are things like Homer Watson's pictures of contented cows in an Ontario barnyard, Fred Coburn scenes of horses pulling logs through a wintry landscape, the monumental abstract canvasses of Jean-Paul Riopelle.
None of these standbys, however, were for sale Thursday evening in Toronto as Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects, a newly formed division of venerable Waddington's auctioneers, hosted what it billed as "the first truly contemporary auction of Canadian art ever held for commercial purposes."
All 69 lots up for bidding, carrying a total pre-sale estimate of $407,500 to $564,400, dated from the mid-1980s onwards and most were by artists who are still alive and, for the most part, continue to produce new art. Expectations, though, were modest as sales of contemporary Canadian art at auction, while growing, remain very much in the shadow of veteran (and dead) performers like the Group of Seven, Riopelle and Emily Carr.
And so it came to pass Thursday before a crowd of about 90. Although Canadian artists like Iain Baxter&, Lynne Cohen, Micah Lexier, David Urban, Ric Evans and Cathy Daley certainly appeal to with-it primary-market collectors, art museums and art fairs, it was made clear by the Concrete auction that, at the resale level, they remain very much an acquired taste.
Concrete founder and Waddington vice-president of business development Stephen Ranger didn't have hard figures either for lots sold or cash value by sale's end. But he estimated that "we sold probably 60 per cent" – an optimistic tally in that some calculated the sell-through to be more like 49 to 55 per cent. Still, as Ranger himself remarked, "you gotta start somewhere . . . I think we put together a great sale . . . and what we did sell sold very well."
The single biggest earner was Standing Nude, a full-frontal female figure study, done in tempera on wood panel by Kitchener's Jeremy Smith. It went into the bidding with a $10,000-$15,000 estimate and sold for $19,200 (including 20 per cent buyer's premium). Also doing well was Ottawan Carol Wainio's creamy, dreamy acrylic-on-linen, Structures of Memory, selling for $16,800 (including premium), almost three times its high-end estimate of $6,000. Northern Light, Saskatchewan , a bold landscape by Alberta-born, Toronto-based Kim Dorland, sold for $15,600 (including premium) against an estimate of $10,000-$15,000.
Meanwhile, Crowd 2004, a linocut print by Torontonian Stephen Andrews, fetched $8,500 – just a notch below its low-end estimate of $9,000 but enough to go into Concrete's history books as the first successful transaction in the Concrete Contemporary Acquisition Fund. The fund's designed to help public institutions buy art from Concrete, with the auctioneer agreeing to pay up to 50 per cent of the purchase price of an auctioned work, to a maximum of $10,000. In this case, Toronto's Seneca College Art Collection was the beneficiary.
Nonetheless, there were disappointments aplenty, most notably Ian Wallace's Untitled (The Power Plant Painter) which had the highest estimate of all the lots ($60,000-$80,000) yet failed to sell when bidding failed to move beyond $50,000. Wallace had donated the photolaminate with acrylic on canvas as a fundraiser to benefit Toronto's non-profit Power Plant gallery. Another West Coast conceptualist, Ken Lum, also struck out, failing to see two of his digital prints find a home. Also unsold were two sets of numbers, And Still Counting, on plywood by Haligonian conceptualist Garry Neill Kennedy. These too had been donated on the understanding that proceeds would go to a non-profit, in this case Halifax's Khyber Arts Society.