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Bylot Island I by Canadian artist Lawren Harris.
Bylot Island I by Canadian artist Lawren Harris.

Under the hammer

Lawren Harris painting sells for $2.8-million Add to ...

Bylot Island I, a large Arctic painting by the Group of Seven's Lawren Harris, sold for $2.8-million at auction in Vancouver on Wednesday - one of three works that went for more than $1-million at Heffel Auction House's spring sale of Canadian art (all prices include buyer's premium). But a double-sided Tom Thomson that some had mused might fetch more than $1-million did not meet the reserve price and failed to sell.

In all, 220 lots yielded a total of $21.8-million, the second highest auction total in Canadian history.

"Great paintings do well in any economy," said Robert Heffel, when asked about the impact of the financial crisis in Europe on the art market. "And I actually think the economy in Canada is pretty good right now."

The price for Bylot Island I fell within the pre-sale estimate by Heffel Auction House (once the premium is factored out), but did not come close to the $3.51-million paid for a much smaller Harris sketch at auction last November.

Still, it ties another Harris work - Houses, St. Patrick Street - as the fourth-highest-selling Canadian work at auction. Coming off the podium, Heffel said he was "very excited" with the evening's results. "I'm delighted with how the Harris did," he said. The unnamed philanthropist who was selling the work, along with a number of others, plans to donate the proceeds to Canadian charities.

Another Harris work, Arctic Sketch IX, sold for $1.5-million - a tidy profit over the $500 Theodosia Dawes Bond Thornton paid for it in 1959. Thornton had been a passionate and prescient collector, purchasing works by Group of Seven members for as little as $37.50 in the 1940s and '50s. Said David Heffel: "[She]had the good fortune and smarts to buy many of these works directly from the artists."

Thornton died last year. Several works from her estate were sold Wednesday night, including Albert Henry Robinson's St. Urbain. The painting, which hung behind the piano in Thornton's home, set a new auction record for the artist, selling for $614,000.

A record was also set for Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer. The Sheep's Nose, Bon Echo, was purchased by the Vancouver Art Gallery for $1.1-million.

But in what had to be a disappointment for Heffel, a rare double-sided Tom Thomson work - Landscape with Snow/Northern Mist - failed to meet the reserve, attracting a bid of only $350,000. The pre-sale estimate had been set at $400,000 to $600,000. As reported by The Globe and Mail's James Adams, there have been questions in the past about the authenticity of the work, and it failed to sell at auction in 1987. Another Thomson work, Early Morning, Georgian Bay, also failed to sell on Wednesday.

"The one Thomson has a history behind it," said Robert Heffel, referring to Landscape with Snow/Northern Mist, saying that was "absolutely" the reason it didn't sell.

Ian Thom, Senior Curator, Historical at the Vancouver Art Gallery offered another explanation. "I don't think it's a very good painting."

Thom was at the auction to bid on The Sheep's Nose, Bon Echo.

"We purchased the painting because we didn't have a major Lismer in the collection," he said. "Although we have a number of other Lismers in the collection, we didn't have an important canvas and we felt this would galvanize the collection of Lismers."

The VAG acquired the work using a bequest that specified the funds go toward the purchase of original works by The Group of Seven.

Wednesday's Heffel auction was held in two parts, with post-war and contemporary art (some from the estate of architect Arthur Erickson) sold in the afternoon, and earlier works in the evening. A number of auction records were set during the afternoon session, which brought in $4.7-million in total. Bill Reid's sculpture Killer Whale (Chief of the Undersea World) sold for $702,000 - a record for the renowned Haida artist. The work is recognizable to thousands who have visited the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park; it was created as part of the production of the large Reid sculpture outside the entrance.

Auction records were also set for artists Claude Tousignant, Gordon Smith, Jean McEwen, Chris Cran and Jean Paul Lemieux - whose Ti-Gus sold for an applause-garnering $672,750, more than double the pre-sale estimate.

"That $5-million sale for just the contemporary art is huge," said Robert Heffel, "because that used to be our sale total for not just contemporary art, but for the whole thing."

Among those in attendance: actor Steve Martin. Currently in Vancouver shooting the film The Big Year, Martin attended both the preview at Heffel's gallery Wednesday morning and the evening auction. Martin is an avid art collector, but told The Globe that he was not interested in a specific work.

"I'm just here to enjoy the show. And I enjoy Canadian art."

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