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Thomson work fetches less than expected at auction

A largely unseen Tom Thomson oil sketch fetched $350,000 at auction Sunday in Calgary, as the work of the Canadian master failed to show its value in a tough economy that has hobbled the art world.

The painting, Untitled - Dawn on Round Lake (Kawawaymog Lake) , created in November, 1915 while Mr. Thomson was on a deer hunting trip in northern Ontario, was sold by Levis Fine Art Auctions & Appraisals.

The work was declared unsold initially after a single buyer offered $350,000 - below the reserved price of $400,000 - but the auctioneer, the prospective buyer and seller later agreed on the lower price.

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The sale thrilled purchaser Tom Budd, a retired Calgary man who was driving race cars before the auction.

The piece, which depicts a lake surrounded by scrub brush and matchstick trees with a bright blue hill in the distance, was expected to fetch between $500,000 and $600,000.

The small 21-by-27-centimetre oil on wood panel painting by the celebrated landscape artist had been tucked away with a single family for almost 94 years.

For the past several days, the curious have flocked to the Nickel Arts Museum at the University of Calgary to catch a glimpse of the artwork that experts knew existed, but few people had seen.

"I'm between $500,000 and $2-million shy of being able to afford it," said Bob Axford of Calgary as he admired at the painting, but hoped to bring home some less pricey finds.

"This is huge," said a white-glove wearing Mick Mann as he held up the painting for inspection by a parade of prospective bidders and wishful thinkers.

Mr. Thomson gave the painting to a village doctor, Robert McComb, who had accompanied him and Algonquin Park forest ranger, Thomas Wattie, on that 1915 trek near the artist's beloved park.

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Dr. McComb reflected on excursion - and gift - on the back.

"This painting was painted by Tom Thomson during a hunting trip near Algonquin Park," he wrote, "...Thompson gave this to me at that time."

"Year," he added, "1912 or about that year."

Thomson created the work where the men made camp on an island at the tip of Round Lake. He put his signature on the front at the bottom right by dragging a nail through wet paint. He dated it '15.

Dr. McComb's family has had it ever since.

For whatever reason, the unidentified owner decided to sell, according to auction house owner Doug Levis.

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The piece had been hanging in a woman's living room in small-town Alberta for decades. The owner arrived in Mr. Levis's office via bus and had it wrapped in a towel when she offered to put it on the block.

The owner, who passed on a chance to be present during the auction, had already said goodbye, the auctioneers said.

Mr. Thomson created four important oil sketches in one day on that 1915 excursion.

The Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the National Gallery of Canada each have one of the other three pieces. For years, experts weren't even sure where the fourth painting was housed.

Joan Murray, an art historian and author, noted that all four works demonstrate "a sense of purpose." She described Dawn on Round Lake as "intimate and direct."

"It conveys the ethereal and mysteriously beautiful way light can enhance a place that Thomson clearly regarded as very special indeed," she wrote in the auction catalogue.

Although Mr. Thomson died in 1917 - and under mysterious circumstances by drowning in Algonquin Park - before the Group of Seven was officially founded, he is credited as a significant influence on the venerated landscape artists.

Mr. Thomson's work capturing the Canadian wilderness is coveted by private collectors and galleries.

Before the economy turned sour, works by Mr. Thomson were selling for more than $1-million each. But last fall, paintings by Mr. Thomson and other Canadian masters couldn't even attract bidders willing to meet the low-end threshold for sale.

At today's auction, some collectors picked up bargains. Two Norval Morrisseau acrylics and a William Goodridge Roberts oil were steals at 20 to 40 per cent below the lowest expected bids.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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