Vancouver (15BP) – Yet another history lesson was extended to the Canadian art market last night, May 23rd, in Vancouver when Heffel Fine Art Auction House laid down the gauntlet to the rest of the market with a spell-binding sale that realized an incredible $22, 937,249, for an average price of $116,385 per painting sold. The 220 lot session saw no less than four paintings top the million dollar mark with buyer’s premium, and just 10% of the items offered failing to find a new home.
The sale was the largest grossing session in the history of the Canadian art market, almost doubling the previous high, set by the same saleroom in the fall of 2005. The top selling Harris was not only a record for the artist and a record for the saleroom, but the second highest total for a Canadian painting at auction. Individual artists’ records fell like nine pins: Harris, Thomson, Casson and Jackson sketches, Colville, Lyman and others. A seemingly insatiable market made certain that history was made on this night.
The sale offered up its share of surprises and disappointments, but overall there was not the anticipated feeding frenzy that some critics were expecting, although the final result would seem to question that. There were, no doubt, some bidders who got caught up in the mood of the night and probably are scratching their heads this morning wondering what made them do it. But not the buyers of the more important works. These purchases appeared calculated and controlled. The record-setting Lawren Harris Pine Tree and Red House, Winter, City Painting II (illustated above right) was always destined to do better than its $800/1,200,000 estimate, with the potential for $2 million definitely on the cards. And so it was, and then some! The stunning winter image, painted in 1924 and adorned with the all-important splash of red and that wonderful snowy-blue hue soared to an outstanding $2.5 million hammer price ($2,875,000 with the premium).
Another meaty and market-friendly winter Harris also topped the million dollar mark when Snow, Algonquin Park, 18” x 20” painted c.1916-17, sold for $900,000 ($1,035,000 with premium) against a $300/400,000 estimate. Also picking up a $900,000 hammer price were two of the four Tom Thomson sketches on offer. All four were estimated at $300/400,000 and all were expected to do better, but not, I think, the million dollar plus that Spring Woods and Summer Clouds, each painted around 1916, finally achieved, although a precedent for such a price was set last fall at the Sotheby’s/Ritchies sale. The remaining two Thomsons, Approaching Storm, Dog Point and Log Picking, Houseboat, Dog Point sold for $690,000 and $460,000 respectively.
The tone of the evening was set very early with Sybil Andrews’ Speedway linocut, the sale’s first lot, selling for $63,250 against a $35/45,000 estimate. Three lots later Maurice Cullen’s Winter Scene 15” x 18” from 1896 raced to an impressive $109,250, four times its $20/30,000 estimate. Another Cullen, this time a 6” x 7” loose sketch of Ice Cutting on the St. Lawrence also performed well taking a bid of $74,750 against a $20/25,000 estimate.
Not everything sold wildly over estimate, however, and some even turned in figures that might be considered a little disappointing on the night. I was expecting more from the wonderful James Wilson Morrice Paris Quai, 20” x 24” that carried a $300/400,000 estimate. This was one piece I thought might test the higher limits although it had certain condition problems that probably held it back. However, it still did well with an above estimate bid of $488,750. The large Paul-Emile Borduas canvas Bouc centenaire painted in New York in 1954 was perhaps the bargain of the night when it sold just under estimate at $172,500. It was obviously not Borduas’ night as the artist’s Composition was unsold at $190,000.
Epitomizing the vagaries of the art market was the sale of Lawren Harris’s Abstract Painting LSH #178. A large, double-sided work, it was indeed colourful and decorative but hardly, I think, as important in an abstract context as the two preceding works by Borduas, and yet it fetched a solid $253,000. Perhaps it was the Harris-ness and not the abstraction that was the attraction.
Other prices of interest among a catalogue of candidates was the record price paid for John Lyman’s Beach Scene – La Grand Plage, a 20” x 26” canvas c.1926 that found a buyer at $207,000, well above its $60/80,000 estimate. Helen McNicoll’s Children by Stream, 20” x 24” fetched $276,000, Emily Carr’s Roll of Life, 22.5” x 34.5” oil on paper realised $402,500, and Arthur Lismer’s Shoreline, Vancouver Island, 24” x 30” from 1952 picked up a bid of $264,500, well above its $60/80,000 estimate.
Mention has to be made of Alex Colville’s record-setting Two Pacers, a 24” x 32” tempera on board that fetched $690,000 against a $200/300,000 estimate. And we cannot overlook the record price of $184,000 paid for an A.Y. Jackson sketch of Eskimo Houses, Pond Inlet, Baffin Island. The 8.5” x 10.5” panel was estimated at $75/125,000. Also setting a record for a sketch was A.J. Casson’s famous image of the Anglican Church, Magnetawan. The 9.5” x 11.25” oil on board was estimated at $75/125,000 but was finally knocked down for an outstanding $322,000.
And how can we overlook that now famous E.J. Hughes painting that was found in a rural Ontario yard sale for $200. Okanagan Lake, 32” x 48” sold on the night not for the anticipated $100,000 touted in the pre-sale media but rather for an astonishing $402,500. Is art a good investment? You do the math!