The Canadian art market faltered this fall, but didn’t collapse, despite the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s. Indeed, depending on how you viewed the season, it might even be said that Canadian art is, right now, perhaps the best alternate investment around and certainly one that appears to have defied the odds and bucked the seriously-downward trend of just about every other investment vehicle.
Although all the results are not yet in it seems quite likely that the season will produce a total of around $25 million – with four lots selling for more than a million dollars - and is on course with the spring 2009 season still to come for a $50 million year – about what it did three years ago. If it holds at this level and doesn’t drop further, then I think it can be said that the Canadian art market held up well. If, however, as we saw in 1990/91, the market goes into freefall, then we’ll have a different story to tell.
Of course, you could also look at the season and say it really should have done $35/40 million – that’s almost certainly what would have happened had this season been held six months earlier. Then the $25 million doesn’t look so great. Add to that the numerous high-end failures that permeated all of the big-three rooms and you start to question if the season was really that good after all. Heffel Fine Art saw four Lawren Harris’s and three Tom Thomsons fail to sell, something that was absolutely unheard of prior to this season. Harris, especially, was always considered money in the bank. Sotheby’s/Ritchies, similarly, saw their sure-fire winners such Riopelle, Varley and Carr do belly flops, while Joyner Fine Art had to pass on major works by Thomson, Carr and Jackson. Indeed, the number of high-end casualties was quite unexpected as most critics thought it would be the middle and lower ends of the market that would suffer most. Not so. Indeed, parts of these markets did exceptionally well.
Heffels were the first of the big three salesrooms to test the market when they offered a two session auction that included the inaugural sale of Canadian Contemporary and Post-War Art on November 19th in Toronto. The pre-sale expectation for the two sessions was a very conservative $12/16million. When the final hammer fell the total was $12.5million.
Reaching estimate is no mean feat, so, at the time the general consensus was that the market had held, and Canadian collectors and investors could breathe easily, at least for the time being. As auctioneer David Heffel said at the conclusion to the first session, “I think we can put away the aspirins for another year!” But it is rare for this particular saleroom to only achieve their pre-sale expectations – usually they super-exceed them. Another sign that the result was, perhaps, not as accommodating as we might have thought.
A few days later it was the turn of Sotheby’s in association with Ritchie’s to try their luck. The pre-sale estimate on another very strong sale was set at $9.5/13.5million. Again the high-end faltered, and buyers were reluctant to commit as close to 34% of the lots went unsold. Despite this the total came in at $8.4million.
Next it was Joyner’s turn. Expectations were high for a couple of important lots and the sale looked to be on fairly solid ground with a $4/6 million estimate. Not so. When the final hammer fell on the two-session sale the total was just over $2 million.
Interestingly enough, the smaller salesrooms performed quite strongly overall. Levis and Hodgins took a million dollars between them out of Calgary, and Walker’s had a very solid sell rate that left few pieces unsold. Bonhams turned in a solid performance producing sales of $543,000 although 32% of the works went unsold.
So, what could have been, in a better economy, a very strong, almost record-setting season turned out to be, for some, just okay. But I think it is harsh to be too critical of the season. The salerooms certainly did their job in providing the market with a great selection of important works, and, perhaps, if they had had more warning, could have been even more aggressive with the estimates. As it was the estimates were tempered with caution and reserve – just not enough for the current uncertain marketplace.
Clearly the long-awaited correction has arrived and is not wasting any time in making its presence felt. Unless something in excess of a miracle happens next spring, there will not be a thirteenth year of annual total sales gains for the Canadian art market. But that’s not all bad. It means the market should now be more accessible to the average collector, and prices return to a level that most observers agree is more realistic and more in keeping with real values for the work offered.