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Art at Auction
in Canada

Apr. 18, 2006 

Canada’s estimable geographic reach -- 3.9 million square miles, making it the second-largest country in the world -- contains a less sizeable population, presently estimated at about 32.5 million souls. Still, the Great White North has its own art scene and its own art history, ranging from Cornelius Krieghoff and Paul Kane in the 1800s to the early 20th-century Group of Seven landscape painters and more contemporary modernists like Jean-Paul Riopelle and Harold Town.

When it comes to auction houses, Canada has its share. The auction record for a Canadian work at a Canadian auction house is held by Paul Kane’s Scene in the Northwest -- Portrait (ca. 1845), sold by Ritchies auction house in 2002 for $5,062,500. Herewith, a quick and neat survey of the top Canadian auction houses. All prices are in Canadian dollars.

Heffel Fine Art Auction House
The Vancouver-based Heffel’s can boast of holding the record total for a fine art auction in Canada with last fall’s sale of Canadian art on Nov. 25, 2005. The top lot was Maurice Cullen’s The Bird Shop, St. Lawrence Street (ca. 1920), a scene of a snow-swept city street that sold for $1,495,000 and that is -- arguably -- emblematic of the Canadian esthetic. Records were set for 19 other Canadian artists during the auction, which totaled $12.3 million, a national record.  

Established in 1978 by Canadian industrialist and art collector Kenneth G. Heffel in an historic Royal Bank of Canada building in Vancouver, Heffel’s -- now run by the founder’s sons, David and Robert Heffel -- specializes in the Impressionist-inspired Group of Seven (Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley and, later, A.J. Casson), as well as their celebrated associates, like Vancouver’s own Emily Carr. The house has two live auctions each year, one in Vancouver and the other in Toronto, and conducts monthly online auctions. Heffel’s also operates an office in Ottawa, and debuted a branch in Montreal in 2005. Total annual sales exceed $20 million.

Up next for Heffel’s is a sale of "Fine Canadian Art," on May 25, 2006, at the Sheraton Wall Centre Hotel in Vancouver, comprised of 189 lots. Notable among them are Montreal-born abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle’s colorful, mosaic-like 1956 Sans Titre (est. $175,000-$225,000), Lawren Stewart Harris’ 1930 Morin Island, Eclipse Sound, North Baffin Island, Arctic Painting XXXVI , an oil-on-board composition capturing the dreamy blues and whites of the Arctic (est. $200,000-$250,000) and Sunglow on the Palisades, Lac Tremblant, Maurice Galbraith Cullen’s radiant oil-on-canvas meditation on a snowy mountain landscape in Canada’s Upper St. Lawrence (est. $350,000-$400,000). A pdf version of the catalogue is available at the Heffel’s website.

Waddington’s Auctioneers and Appraisers
Founded in 1850 and headquartered in Toronto, Waddington’s is operated by Alastair, Duncan and Donald McLean and conducts more than 125 auctions a year in a wide range of specialties, including Inuit Art. A Nov. 7-8, 2005, sale of Inuit sculpture, prints and fabrics saw many of the 885 lots go way above estimate, with results that included $61,200 for a ca. 1950 inlaid soapstone ulu that was estimated at $3,000-$4,000.

In 2002, Waddington’s merged with Joyner Fine Art, a company established by auctioneer Geoffrey Joyner (one-time president of Sotheby’s Canada), resulting in Joyner Waddington’s department of Canadian Art, which continues to be led by the debonair Joyner. Over the two decades before the merger, Joyner Fine Art totaled over $100 million in sales, including the auction on May 29, 2001, of a Lawren Stewart Harris oil painting for $2,427,500, still the second highest price for a work of Canadian art. (According to Heffel’s, Harris is Canada’s most popular artist.)

The catalogue for Joyner Waddington’s forthcoming sale of Fine Canadian Art on May 30-31, 2006, will not be available until May. But, according to the house, notable lots include two works featuring horse-drawn sleighs: Alexander Young Jackson’s small (7¼ x 9 in.), tranquil gouache of a pale pink sleigh moving through a snow bank (est. $10,000-$12,000) and Cornelius Kreighoff’s lively oil-on-canvas painting of a fire-engine red number, led by a horse galloping towards a bridge (est. $50,000-$70,000).

Founded in 1967 and with offices in Toronto and Montreal, Ritchies offers 20 sales each year, plus biannual auctions of "Important Canadian Art" organized in partnership with Sotheby’s. Chairman of the enterprise is third-generation auctioneer Ira R. Hopmeyer, who acquired Ritchies in 1995 and still frequently helms its sales. President Stephen Ranger recently launched a partnership with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to start a department of Fine and Rare Wine auctions (the inaugural 1300 lot wine auction in 2002 grossed more than $2,400,000), usually taking place in the fall and accompanied by gala wine tastings. The firm also offers its clients regular "Discovery Sales," auctions of eclectic and reasonably priced lots designed to whet the public appetite for the bidding room floor.

Ritchies has been in partnership with Sotheby’s since February 2002, an enterprise that proved an immediate success -- the first auction, held in Toronto, yielded the Paul Kane record. Touted as the "only dedicated high-end sale of Canadian Art in Canada," the joint auctions limit the number of lots to below 250 and keep the average lot values above $30,000. Among other top prices obtained at Sotheby’s/Ritchies auctions is the $1,687,500 paid for James Wilson Morrice’s Effet de Neige in 2005 and the $1,575,500 paid for Lawren Harris’ Winter in the Northern Woods in 2004. Sotheby’s/Ritchies is also growing the contemporary sector, setting new artist records for Jack Bush ($92,000), Paterson Ewen ($57,500) and Michael Snow ($109,250).

The partnership’s upcoming sale of "Important Canadian Art," set for May 29, 2006, at Ritchies' King Street East salesroom in Toronto, looks to be one of the highlights of the season, with 188 lots expected to fetch between $3.3 and $4.5 million in all. The top lot is J.W. Morrice's The Harbour (est. $200,000-$250,000), a tranquil green, beige and mauve canvas of a sailboat in the harbor at Deippe in Normandy. Also of note is a luminous Lawren Harris painting of an arctic oceanscape joined to the sky by an enigmatic shaft of light, resembling an immense, abstract dove of peace rising from the waves (est. $100,000-$150,000). Other notable works in the show are by J.W. Beatty, Jack Bush, Emily Carr, A.Y. Jackson, Cornelius Krieghoff, Jean-Paul Lemieux, J.E.H. MacDonald, Henrietta Mabel May, J.W. Milne, Robert Pilot and Harold Town.

Other players
Among the other players on the Canadian art auction scene is Maynards, with locations in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto (as well as in Detroit and Tokyo). Founded in 1902, Maynards specializes in industrial machinery and equipment, but also does a lively trade in art and antiques, with regular sales of furniture, silver, jewelry, ceramics and Canadian art. According to VP Hugh Bulmer, recent top lots have included a $76,000 antique Irish salver and an $80,000 Chilkat Northwest Coast native blanket. Next up is an auction of "Contemporary Art and Furnishings" at Maynards’ Vancouver location, May 10, 2006.

Still more Canadian art auctioneers are Empire Auctions, with locations in Montreal and Toronto, specializing in antiques and collectibles; Lando Art Auctions, headquartered in Edmonton, established by art dealer Brent Luebke and auctioneer and interior designer Marie Olah; the New Brunswick-based Bonds Auctions, run by Russell and Kevin Bond and specializing in antiques; and Montreal’s Fraser-Pinneys auction.

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