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When investing in the Canadian art market, ‘look where people aren’t looking’

Detail from Alexander Young (A.Y.) Jackson’s painting, Road Near Eganville (1958), with an estimated price of $12,000 to $16,000, according to Heffel Fine Art auction house before its fall auction in Toronto in 2013.

Heffel Fine Art auction house

Art dealers and auctioneers like to tout the growing international recognition for Canadian art. The Group of Seven or Emily Carr are attracting more foreign buyers, and the Canadian market is catching on, some say.

But "the fact of the matter is, it's still Canadians collecting Canadian art with very, very few exceptions. You can almost count them on one hand," says Linda Rodeck, vice-president at the auction house Waddington's in Toronto and a former managing director at Sotheby's Canada, which has discontinued its Canadian art auctions.

Hyping foreign investment in Canadian art or art as a commodity shouldn't be the function of the art community, she argues.

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"I don't believe that we want to market what we are doing as an investment. It's not the way I approach it at all. Because you know what happens? You get this crazy, momentum investing, which doesn't do anybody any good in the art world."

Ms. Rodeck points to the Keynesian beauty contest in which some bet on stocks, not for the fundamental value of a company, but for what they perceive others think the value could be. If applied to art, it becomes buying based on name recognition and market momentum, and less and less on the work itself.

"Can you see how far removed you are from the aesthetics, which are supposed to drive you?" Ms. Rodeck says. "And then it becomes a little bit of a game of hot potato to some degree, finding someone who perhaps knows a little bit less than you do, that you can pass your painting on to."

The momentum can arise from what museum curators are showing, particularly as foreign museums mount exhibitions of Canadian works. It can have a positive effect, though, on recognition for leading contemporary Canadian artists such as Kent Monkman, Shary Boyle and others.

"And if you are looking to make a purchase for investment reasons, you want to know that there are other educated, knowledgeable people looking at the same artist," said Robin Anthony, art curator at the Royal Bank of Canada who helps selects work for the bank's corporate collection.

It can also lead, however, to greater demand for a particular period of work for certain artists, such as Jean-Paul Riopelle's quintessential mid-1950s painting or Inuit art from that period. That can be limiting.

"It's easy to collect what other people have, because it's a known entity. It's proven and it's safe. But if you want to do your own thing, you might be looking at stuff that no one else is interested in," says collector and Canadian arts administrator Ann Webb. "For myself and my husband, collecting is all about having a relationship with the dealer, sometimes with the artist. Doing your research, spending time and having a deeper understanding of things."

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For Ms. Rodeck, it means ignoring the pricing indexes and looking more at the work itself.

"I don't want to necessarily buy or sell as a collector or as an auctioneer in areas that everybody else is in already. That's already well covered. We already know what Riopelles and [Paul-Émile] Borduases and Emily Carrs are worth. They are beautiful things. They're worth a lot of money," she says.

"But at the top of the pyramid, when you are chasing those sorts of things, there are fewer and fewer people involved [in collecting those works]. Maybe what's more interesting is to look where people aren't looking."

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