Incredible! What else can you say about the Canadian art market and its twelfth straight year of market growth? With the exceptional 2006/07 Canadian art season posting record sales of just over $65 million and with seemingly comparatively weaker sales totals throughout this current year, it was certainly a surprise when the final total for the 2007/08 season, as recorded in the 2009 edition of the Canadian Art Sales Index, came in - $71, 004, 287! That’s a gain of 8.66% over the previous year. Where did it all come from, and from almost 10% less paintings than were sold the previous year? The answer lies at the extreme ends of the price spectrum - the increase in the number of individual paintings that sold for more than $1 million, and the strength of the lower end of the market.
There were no less than 11 paintings that topped the million dollar mark this year, five were from the brush of Tom Thomson, three from Jean-Paul Riopelle, two from Lawren Harris, and one from David Milne. The previous year there were just two works in this elite category. But probably more significant from a market and investor perspective was the strength at the lower end of the market. Simply put there were fewer cheaper paintings. In 2006/07 the figures showed that 78% of the paintings sold for less than $5000. This past year that figure dropped to less than 73%. Similarly, there was an 11% decrease in the number of paintings selling under $2000, and an almost 18% decrease in paintings selling for less than $1000. Looking at it another way, in 2006-/07 approximately 20% of the market sold for more than $5000. This past year 20% of the market sold for more than $10,000. With the increased strength at the lower end of the market it is natural to expect the average price per painting sold at auction would rise, and it did – 18.65%! That price now sits at a solid $15,581.
The top price of the year was reserved for Canada’s foremost landscape painter, Tom Thomson. Sotheby’s/Ritchie’s sold Pine Trees at Sunset for $1.7 million (illustrated right), making it the fifth most expensive Canadian work sold at auction. It’s hard to believe that as recently as two years ago Thomson’s top price at auction was just $400,000. Now, in a single season, five works top $1 million, itself a record for a Canadian artist. The question I have been asking for years is why has it taken so long? Coming in a close second this year was Jean-Paul Riopelle’s untitled work from 1952 which sold in New York for $1,653,300, making it the most expensive Riopelle sold at auction, just edging out the previous record that has stood since 1989.
Looking at the top performing artists on the year we see a small shift in the power elite with Thomson ($9.355 million) moving into second place behind Riopelle ($13.473 million) and Harris ($6.012 million) dropping to third spot. The combined sales for all three artists this year was $28,841,085 or 40.62% of the market. The vast bulk of Riopelle’s major prices were garnered outside of the country proving yet again that he is still the most sought after Canadian artist on the international art scene.
Clearly with such a strong year records were in abundance. Other artists who saw their stock value rise considerably were Milne ($1.25 million), A.Y. Jackson ($525,000), Edwin Holgate ($500,000), Frederick Varley ($600,000), Marc-Aurele Fortin ($700,000), Helen McNicol ($525,000), Kathleen Moir Morris ($350,000), Carl Rindisbacher ($210,000), Marion Scott ($170,000), B.C. Binning ($100,000), Brian Jungen ($140,000), and Robert Reginald Whale ($105,000). Several other artists posted strong personal best performances including Samuel Borenstein ($50,000), Marcel Barbeau ($75,000), Jock MacDonald ($75,000), Prudence Heward ($45,000), Doris McCarthy ($47,500) and Harold Town ($55,000).
In total there were 130 works that sold for more than $100,000 this year, that’s actually down 3% over the previous year. The only new faces to join the illustrious WPL $100,000 Club were Jungen, Scott, Rindisbacher, Binning and Whale. There were 29 changes or additions to the Top 100 Paintings Sold at Auction, with the bar for entry being raised to $425,000, up 21.43% from the previous year. In the Top 100 Canadian Artists’ Records list, there were 16 changes or additions and here the bar for entry was raised to $42,500 up 6.25%. Five of the new entries were modern/abstract painters, and three were women artists.
Further evidence that this year’s strong performance owes a lot to the lower echelons of the market can be found in the performance of the 18 individual WPL Canadian Art Indices, which feature the most prominent and active members, and, by extension, most well-known artists in these particular sectors of the market. In the 2006/07 season, a year which saw strength in the middle and upper areas of the market, 13 of the indexes showed gains while just 4 posted losses, and the overall WPL Composite Canadian Art Index rose substantially. This year we saw 9 indexes post gains and 8 decline which indicates that the middle and to some extent the upper sectors of the market were weaker, with the ‘unseen’ lower end of the market picking up the slack. It is all the more evident when we look at this year’s composite index which fell 11.64% (168 points) to close at $149,016 (1275 points) while the overall sales volume rose 8.66%.
The big winners this year were the Beaver Hall Hill Group (+152.35%), Canadian Women Artists (+64.96%) and the Painters Eleven (+57.05%). The year’s big losers were Canadian Historical Paintings (-70.3%), Modern Canadian Artists (-73.66%), and the Maritime Artists (-77%).
With 12 consecutive years of total annual sales gains under its belt, can the Canadian art market really hope for 13? Given the current state of the Canadian, US and world economies and how they might impact the Canadian and international art markets it would seem highly probable that we might finally see the market correction that many have been expecting for several years. Of course, we have seen it in the past when the more traditional investment markets get ravaged, investors turn to such commodities as fine art as a haven for their investment capital. And, with the stock and real estate markets likely to stay uncertain and even dangerous for the foreseeable future, we might see a recurrence of investor interest in the art market which, in turn, could well mean number 13 will be lucky for the Canadian art market! Let’s hope so.
(This article published courtesy of the Canadian Art Sales Index – 2009 edition published by Westbridge Publications Ltd. To order your copy please click here).