The Canadian art market will post its 9th consecutive annual gain this year, improving on last year’s record total by as much as 10%. Although all the figures are not yet in there seems little doubt that the 2004/05 auction year for Canadian art will come in close to $38 million according to early figures compiled by the Canadian Art Sales Index. This figure is more than double the annual total of five years ago.
The current unprecedented growth in Canadian art began in 1996/97 with sales of around $10 million. Today we are closing in on $40 million which, for the investment minded, means an average annual rate of return of close to 16.5%.
Following on from a fall season that saw the first Canadian sale to top the $8 million mark, the spring season will likely end up being the single best season in Canadian art history with sales projected to be well over $20 million. The three major houses between them posted well over $17 million (hammer price) with Heffels once again the dominant force with an outstanding $7.4 million offering – the second highest total for a sale of Canadian art. The highest total was $8.49 million last fall from the same saleroom. Sotheby’s in association with Ritchie’s retained second spot with a sale of $6.9 million and Joyner produced a double-session total of close to $6 million.
The top price of the season was expected to go to a work from Lawren Harris and it did – but not the one everyone thought. Stealing the glory and sending shock waves through the market was the $567,500 paid for the artist’s Mount Robson from the North East which sold at Joyner’s and set a new record for a sketch by Harris.
Always an interesting season-end statistic is the average price per lot recorded by each of the major rooms. Sotheby’s produced an average price per lot of around $36,702 and saw close to 92% of its works finding buyers. Heffel had an average lot price of $35,796 and a 90% sold rate, while Joyner had an average lot price of $13,333 and 81% sold. Also of note is the number of Canadian paintings that sold for more than $100,000 (hammer price) this spring. The total was 34, which, not surprisingly, is a record for a single season!
As you might expect, a record season brings record* prices and there were lots. The most significant were those set for works by A.Y. Jackson ($475,000 - illustrated upper right), A.J. Casson ($430,000), Tom Thomson ($370,000), Marc-Aurele Fortin ($400,000), Albert Robinson ($290,000), Alex Colville ($230,000), Jean-Paul Lemieux ($250,000) and David Milne ($270,000). Records were also set for a Lawren Harris sketch ($500,000) and a Harris abstract ($375,000) and a Carmichael watercolour ($230,000).
There appears to be no limit to what collectors will pay for the top artists and the finest works. This strength at the upper end of the market has naturally enough created momentum, excitement and at times eye-popping prices in the mid and lower ranges. Some are undoubtedly justified, others I fear are not.
While there was a definite resurgence in interest in the contemporary and modern markets Canada remains married to the handful of names that have dominated the market for so many years, with the Group of Seven and their contemporaries being the most prominent.
The interest in contemporary art is seen as both a good and bad thing. Good because in many cases it is long overdue and it is important that new markets are established and explored. Bad because any significant movement in the contemporary market has in the past been a harbinger of a pending market correction or decline. The contemporary market seems to lend itself more readily to speculation and unsophisticated collecting and, if this is so today, then we can certainly look towards a correction in the not too distant future.
But let’s be optimistic, not pessimistic. Let’s look to the fall season with hopes of greater sales, even more records, and an abundance of quality works the likes of which the market has never seen before. In other words, a continuation of this perfect marketplace!
*The Canadian Art Sales Index takes the hammer price as the selling price when listing prices realised. All records for Canadian artists are, therefore, reported as the hammer price exclusive of buyer’s premium.