Canadian art is in a moment and the timing couldn’t be better

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As spring art auctions break records around the world, some coveted Canadian works hit the market

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The iconic and coveted Alex Colville Coastal Figure will be there, and a cheerful, quintessential Emily Carr oil on canvas, Singing Trees. There will be four works by Lawren Harris on the block, including Mountain Sketch, a luminous depiction of light pouring down from the sky onto the mountains of British Columbia and making one believe in higher powers.

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But the headliner of Heffel Fine Art‘s annual Canadian art spring sale on June 1 is the spectacular 1953 drip and palette piece Sans Titre by internationally renowned Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. The pre-sale estimate for this piece alone is $1-1.5 million, with the 70 works on the block being estimated at $10-15 million in total.

Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle's 1953 work Sans Titre goes up for sale June 1 at the Heffel Fine Art Auction
Quebec artist Jean Paul Riopelle’s 1953 work Sans Titre goes up for sale June 1 at the Heffel Fine Art Auction Photo: Heffel Fine Art auction house

If May’s art auctions in New York are any indication, final sale prices could easily breach these estimates once bidding stops. Nearly $3 billion worth of artwork was sold between Sotheby’s and Christie’s this month alone – and the sales aren’t even complete yet. These include the incredible $195 million realized at Christie’s for Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, 1964, the highest price ever paid for a 20th-century work of art.

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Heffel is the premier auction house for Canadian art, and its annual spring live auction is one of the most anticipated auctions of its kind in North America.

“Each sale has set some records,” says Robert Heffel, vice president of auction house Heffel Fine Art. “The art market in Canada and around the world has been very strong in recent years. We know that will continue this spring.” 2020 a Colville plant, dog and bridgewiped out Heffel’s estimated auction value of $800,000 and sold for $2.4 million.

Coastal Figure by Alex Coville
Coastal Figure by Alex Coville Photo: Heffel Fine Art auction house

The pandemic may have restricted travel, hospitality and dining, but it has boosted art sales worldwide. A large part of this was online bidding, which many auction houses had to expedite. The ability to participate in real-time, from anywhere, has broadened the bidder circle and brought international buyers a new awareness of important works. Christie’s live streaming auctions this month attracted 3.7 million viewers worldwide who watched as 27 sales records were broken.

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Collectors and art enthusiasts from the United States, Europe and Asia are also now regular contributors to Canadian art auctions, and their presence in online bidding wars is helping drive prices up. It’s sure to be a lively evening on June 1st – it will also be streamed live on Facebook, Youtube and Heffel’s website — Attendees will be connected in person, online and by phone with staff at Heffel’s offices in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

“Anytime you can make it easy for people from across Canada and around the world to just log in and bid from home, that’s a pretty powerful tool,” says Heffel.

It also helps that Canadian art is having a moment, being showcased at marquee events and setting impressive new sale prices with buyers from around the world. On May 11, the late Canadian contemporary artist Matthew Wong set a record at Christie’s auction. Green Room2017, sold for $5.34 million, more than double the pre-sale estimate of $2 million.

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Another record was set for a painting by Maud Lewis at an online auction by Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd on May 14th. broken from New Hamburg, Ontario. With aggressive bidding, Lewis’s Black truck sold for $413,000 – more than 10 times the expected amount – far surpassing the previous Lewis record of $67,000 set last November.

And this week Buffet II, a 2021 painting by New York-based Canadian artist Anna Weyant, sold for $580,000 to a Hong Kong bidder at an auction at Phillips in New York.

Heffel says there is great interest in many areas of Canadian art, from the Impressionists to the present. The auction house holds a twice-yearly online auction of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, and the most recent auction in April was a so-called “white glove” auction – 100 percent sold.

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Large public exhibitions such as Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, at the National Gallery in Ottawa Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment at the McMichael Collection near Toronto celebrates Canadian artists and offers the public new ways to appreciate them, not to mention the thrill of actually attending a cultural event in person.

As always, the works themselves are the main factor behind the record-breaking sales. And some seldom-seen important Canadian works are coming to market through estate sales of older family private collections.

Singing Trees by Emily Carr
Singing Trees by Emily Carr Photo: Heffel Fine Art auction house

Heffel says some of the best collections built in the ’60s and ’70s are making a comeback. Baby boomers who inherited these works are now aging themselves and recalculating their wealth. “We’re seeing a shift in demographics, with some really great artwork coming out from the collections that were built a few years ago.”

The Emily Carr painting on the June 1 block, a legacy of the sellers, was first seen by Heffel in 2000. “It only took me 22 years to get this Emily Carr.”

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