The Canadian art market set all sorts of records in the 2004-05 auction year, with the most significant being the almost $40 million generated in sales for Canadian art at auction. According to figures in the recently published 2006 edition of the Canadian Art Sales Index, this is the ninth consecutive year-over-year gain for the Canadian market. With all the hype and publicity generated by the major auction houses across the country for high-selling, multi-million dollar paintings, it must seem to outside observers that this is what the market is all about – rare paintings, huge prices, wealthy collectors. But it’s not!
The Canadian market, like all markets around the world, is actually propped up by the smaller salesrooms and lesser-valued or minor paintings. Indeed, of the more than 5,000 Canadian paintings sold at auction this past auction year 80.5% sold for less than $5,000 and 66% sold for less than $2000. Looking deeper we discover that 52% sell for less than $1000 and 33% fetch under $500. Only 12% of the market sells above $10,000.
The market, therefore, is not a market just for the wealthy elite, but clearly for collectors on just about every size of budget. And the marketplace is not confined to swank hotel ballrooms and black-tie cocktail previews. It also exists on a much more personal and intimate level in dozens of smaller salesrooms across the country. Salesrooms such as Westbridge Fine Art Auction House, Vancouver’s newest salesroom, and the first boutique-style auction house in Canada.
The ‘boutique’ auction experience is the novel concept of auctioneer and publisher Anthony Westbridge. “I was looking for a way to hold small, quality Canadian and international art auctions as well as personalized theme, and single artist auctions in an intimate gallery setting, much like a regular art exhibition except the pieces are sold in one session under the auctioneer’s hammer. It was important to my initial vision that I keep it in the gallery rather than having to rent a large and impersonal hall or hotel room. Recognizing that at most auctions there is a nucleus of serious bidders and an abundance of onlookers out for an evening’s entertainment, I thought that if I could appeal just to the serious bidders then I could keep the sales small, personal and in my gallery.”
Has it worked? “Most definitely,” Westbridge says. “Just about everyone who comes to our sales ends up a winning bidder, or at least a serious under-bidder.”
Westbridge says that because space is limited – he can handle about 30 to 50 people only – seating, especially for popular sales such as their fall sale last October (see separate report) is done on a first-come basis. Bidders not able to attend the sale, or not lucky enough to get a seat, can bid live online through the company's partnership with iCollector.com and eBay live auctions, or they can leave absentee bids.
Westbridge says a typical boutique auction will consist of 60 to 100 lots of paintings, sculpture and prints – he doesn’t handle furniture and general antiques, just art – and usually takes about an hour to an hour and a half to conduct.
“As is the market norm, most of our lots are in the $500 to $5000 range, and are by International as well as Canadian artists,” Westbridge points out. “Last October’s sale was an excellent example of the quality and variety of work we offer.”
Westbridge conducts about four live 'boutique' auctions a year, and, starting this spring, will be offering regular monthly online auctions as well.