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Courtesy Heffel Fine Arts Auction
"The Ski Patroller"
Edwin Headley Holgate, "The Ski Patroller", oil on board, 1949, 16" x 12 3/8"
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Courtesy Heffel Fine Art
"Four Ships in Variable Weather No. 1"
Bertram Charles (B.C.) Binning, "Four Ships in Variable Weather No. 1", oil on board, 12" x 18"
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Courtesy Heffel Fine Art
Christopher Pratt, "French Doors", oil on board, 1973, 32" x 32"
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Courtesy Sotheby's Canada
"Early Snow, Algonguin Park"
Tom Thomson, "Early Snow, Algonguin Park", oil on canvas mounted on wooden panel, Spring 1914
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Courtesy Joyner Fine Art
Alexandra Lake, "The Cloister", 1953, oil on canvas, 47" x 33"
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Courtesy Joyner Fine Art
"Island Off Greenland, Arctic Sketch XIX"
Lawren Stewart Harris, "Island Off Greenland, Arctic Sketch XIX", oil on board, 12" x 15"
AUCTIONS - SPRING 2011 REVIEW
BY Douglas MacLean
With auction sales in the larger markets of London, New York and Hong Kong hitting huge highs, our Canadian market sometimes pales in comparison. Nevertheless, Canadian art is attracting a larger audience and higher values at auctions across the country. As an advisor and private dealer, I’ve been paying attention to these sales for many years. This brief review concentrates on the larger auction houses and not on the regional auctions. I see a strong role for these regional sales to connect locally and dig out important western artists, historical, modern and contemporary. But this spring, the larger houses attracted the attention of prominent collectors and dealers with important consignments.
On May 17 in Vancouver, Heffel Fine Art held a two-part sale featuring historical and modern works on the same day. Heffel managed to consign yet another large important estate for their sale. Edgar and Dorothy Davidson were collectors of the best kind, buying what they loved, high-quality art well in advance of the market interest. Although they had some very good historical works in the collection, the primary focus was modern art bought in the 1960s, primarily in Montreal. The standout work in the historical sale was The Ski Patroller by Edwin Holgate. This small portrait from 1949 was a gem.
SOLD: $60,000 Edwin Headley Holgate, The Ski Patroller, 1949, oil on board,16" x 12 3/8".
The best story of the picture was that the owner (the subject) is still with us, and brought the work in to Heffel herself. It sold for a stunning $60,000. Another beautiful piece was David Milne’s Woman and Bright Trees, West Saugerties, NY painted in 1914 by the innovative artist, from his important New York period. This period of Milne’s work was highlighted by his prominence in the Armory Show of 1913. The work sold for $350,000. The historical sale fell slightly short of estimates overall, but still did well.
SOLD: $85,000 Bertram Charles (B.C.) Binning, Four Ships in Variable Weather No. 1, oil on board, 12" x 18".
Collectors no doubt were focused on the modern sale, and it started with a bang. Lot #1, Four Ships in Variable Weather No. 1 by B.C. Binning, British Columbia’s respected early abstract painter, sold for $85,000, nearly double its estimate. And on it went, an exciting group of modern works including Painters Eleven, William Kurelek, Quebec painters, E.J. Hughes and others brought in close to $14 million in one night. The quality was high and interest keen, the Davidson collection a credit to the sale. So much for a soft market — as elsewhere around the world, great things inspire interest even in tougher times.
The Canadian auctions are usually held within a short time frame. It keeps interest high, media notes on the front page and dealers on the move. Sotheby’s Canadian sale and Joyner Fine Art were up next in Toronto. All of the larger auctions now tend to extend their sweep across Canada. With previews in major centres, and catalogues out about a month in advance of sales, the buzz was clear.
UNSOLD: $450-$650,000 EST Tom Thomson, Early Snow, Algonquin Park, oil on canvas, mounted on wooden panel, Spring 1914.
Sotheby’s Canadian sale previewed May 23 to 26 at the Royal Ontario Museum. It’s a great preview space to show art — light and airy with generous wall space. The catalogue cover this year featured the broad thick paint of Marcelle Ferron, a Quebec Automatiste. In years past the cover was usually reserved for a work of historical interest. This cover choice suggests Modern art has come to the table. Inside, illustrated in full colour, was a Tom Thomson, the feature work of the sale. The preview was well attended, with Sotheby’s staff noting the largest crowd ever, with lots of poking and looking, over a period of four days.
The sale itself was held in the largest space on the main floor, dominated by a huge important Buddha figure. However the exuberance of Vancouver was not to be repeated. Any time a sale starts with a withdrawn, pass lot it’s not a great sign. And this continued. The room went quiet when Tom Thomson’s Early Snow, estimated at a reasonable value of $450,000 to $650,000 failed to find a buyer. I counted 65 lots withdrawn through the night. Some works did get positive results — David Milne’s Trillums and Trilliums, an odd painting in my opinion, supported by excellent provenance, it sold for $240,000 and he was the artist of the sale with strong values on excellent etchings and a brilliant watercolour.
SOLD: $60,000 Alexandra Luke, The Cloister, 1953, oil on canvas, 47" x 33".
Once again, the modern works shone through. A late addition to the sale, Promenade by Millar Gore Britton sold for $65,000; the small Marcelle Ferron, Caravane, featured on the catalogue cover, sold for $27,500, nicely over its $15,000 to $25,000 estimate. The highlight of the contemporary art was a stellar work, French Doors, by Christopher Pratt estimated at $60,000 to $80,000 and selling for $120,000. It’s one of the very few smaller figure paintings created by Pratt. With the ìfrench doorsî acting as a possible barrier between the artist and the beautiful young model, it was serene and rare.
SOLD: $120,000 Christopher Pratt, French Doors, oil on boardl, 1973, 32" x 32".
Overall there was quiet in the room, some heads of Sotheby’s staff shaking, and collectors and dealers at the end wondering, what just happened? In a quick assessment I believe it’s due to lack of high quality historical works, and finding the very best in contemporary /modern works. Collectors are getting savvy, and dealers are buying important works before auctioneers consign them. And in my very odd opinion, holding a huge commercial sale in the presence of a massive, important Buddha is possibly not keeping with Zen!
The other sale in Toronto was Joyner on May 27, holding the preview in the familiar rooms of Waddingtons Auctions on Bathurst Street (they’ll be installed in their new quarters on King Street for the November auction). At Joyner, I urge people to see the works in real life. Catalogue reproduction quality is adequate, but seeing size and colour and details is important in any buy. Joyner appeals to a large, broad audience.
The feature lot on the catalogue cover was a Lawren Harris’ Island off Greenland and it turned out to be the most expensive painting in Canada for this round of sales. Estimated at $500,000 to $700,000 it was hammered down at $1,500,000 after extensive bidding. The pre-sale chatter (which always takes place) was that Joyner ìhad a few thingsî but in the end, it turned out they had the things people wanted. Tom Thomson’s tiny panel, Fall Woods sold for its estimated $400,000 and a wonderful rare Walter J. Phillips folio of 11 wood engravings sold for $12,000. Once into the contemporary /modern sale, things began to falter somewhat, and this is where quality of consignments plays a huge role. In Joyner’s case more attention is needed in this area. Good things followed by weak and inconsequential items make for a long and boring sale. The star in this area was Alexandra Luke, of the Painters Eleven, with a low estimate of $20,000 to $30,000 on The Cloister, which sold for $60,000, a record for her work. William Kurelek did well in all the sales, including this one, with sales of $85,000 and $40,000, both double their estimates. With some fine-tuning of the modern/contemporary part of the sale, Joyner will continue to hold a strong position in Canadian art auctions.
SOLD: $1,500,000 Lawren Stewart Harris, Island off Greenland, Arctic Sketch XIX, oil on board, 12" x 15".
Overall, it was an interesting spring season — some outstanding works for sure, some surprises, and some big sales to further encourage the investigation of Canadian art at auction. One thing I always tell people about the previews whether big or small is that they’re like mini-museums, free for the effort of attending or even just exploring the catalogues online. Remember that often the best art you see, you will not have an opportunity to see again when it goes into a private collection.