AUCTION HOUSE OPENS DOORS
‘Wonderful collection’ of Canadian art
Art-lovers have a rare chance to see 110 works by iconic Canadian painters like Jean Paul Riopelle and the Group of Seven this week.
From Thursday through Saturday, the Heffel Fine Art Auction House is opening its doors to show off the art treasures, which will be auctioned in Toronto next Wednesday.
“Now’s a really wonderful opportunity for people to come and see a wonderful collection of paintings,” said Robert Heffel, vice-president of the Vancouver-based auction house, which has branches across Canada.
In November, Heffel set an auction record for the most expensive Canadian artwork ever sold when an anonymous buyer paid $11.2 million for a large 1926 canvas by Group of Seven member Lawren Harris.
That price is not expected to be matched at next week’s auction.
However, the works cover a panorama of Canadian art, from an 1860 painting of First Nations hunters at sunset by Cornelius Krieghoff to 20th century canvases by Quebec masters such as PaulÉmile Borduas, Jean Paul Lemieux and Guido Molinari.
Montrealers will delight in cityscapes from long ago, like an exquisite painting of McTavish St. in the 1950s, looking toward downtown, by local artist John Little, and a scene in a rural-looking Montreal neighbourhood in the 1920s by Kathleen Moir Morris, a member of the Beaver Hall Group.
The brightest star of the auction is a 51-by-76¾-inch canvas by Quebec-born Jean Paul Riopelle, expected to fetch between $1 million and $1.5 million.
Riopelle, an abstract expressionist, was associated after the Second World War with the School of Paris, the group of French and émigré artists who made their home in the City of Light.
He created the vast work, titled Vent du nord, by applying paint with a palette knife and drip technique.
“This painting could hang in any museum in the world,” said Robert Heffel, who runs the auction house with his brother, David.
But it’s likely it never will, since these days, most of the works sold at auction go to private collectors, he said.
“Our art institutions are underfunded,” David Heffel said. “It’s hard for them to compete in a million-dollar market.”
Corporations are also less interested in art than in years past, he said.
“There was a vogue for Canadian companies to acquire art collections in the 1970s,” David Heffel said. “Today, there are just a handful of Canadian corporations, particularly Canadian financial institutions, that are actively collecting.”
Foreign takeovers and the need to boost shareholders’ returns have dampened the corporate appetite for art, he said.
The auction also includes several works by Harris, whose work Mountain Forms broke the Canadian sales record. Among them are six oil sketches of rugged mountain scenes, expected to fetch between $600,000 and $800,000 each.
Harris’s popularity got a boost from an exhibition in 2015-16 cocurated by comedian Steve Martin in Los Angeles, Boston and at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.
“Lawren Harris has really been in the global art spotlight recently and deservedly so,” Robert Heffel said.
Why is Harris so popular with collectors?
“He’s trying to attain a spiritual plane in his paintings and I think people really relate to that,” Heffel said.
Other highlights include a 1921 canvas of a winter road in Quebec by Group of Seven member A. Y. Jackson, valued at $300,000 to $500,000, along with paintings by group members Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and Franklin Carmichael.
The Group of Seven forged a uniquely Canadian artistic identity in the 1920s by painting the untamed northern wilderness. While Harris was independently wealthy, the others, including Lismer, who later was associated with an art school at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, started out as illustrators.
The auction also includes a few non-Canadian works, including a portrait of ballerina Karen Kain by Andy Warhol.
Heffel, which moved its spring auction from Vancouver to Toronto for the first time this year, has generated national headlines for record-breaking prices for Canadian masterpieces. The brothers built their late father’s private art gallery into a dominant player in the art auction business by being early in exploiting the Internet’s potential to boost sales, the Heffels said. This year, the firm’s online sales jumped by 28 per cent, David Heffel said.
“We see Canadian art as growing and growing on an international scale,” Robert Heffel said.
But not all jaw-dropping sales get headlines. Last month, Montreal art dealer Alan Klinkhoff sold a Lawren Harris painting through his Toronto gallery for $9.5 million. It was part of a sale of 14 paintings by the artist to various buyers that fetched more than $30 million.
“Our business is private,” Klinkhoff said. “I don’t broadcast.”
Canadian art is “doing extremely, extremely well,” he said. However, less known works are still affordable, he added.
“It seems a bit of a two-tier market. The most popular are going for extraordinary prices,” he said.
David Heffel, left, and Robert Heffel will be auctioning off Jean Paul Riopelle’s Vent du nord next Wednesday in Toronto. “This painting could hang in any museum in the world,” Robert Heffel says.