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8 Stories to Watch at Canada’s Fall Auctions

Canada’s fall auctions get going this week, with Waddington’s Canadian fine art auction happening November 24 at 7 p.m. at the auction house’s headquarters on Toronto’s King Street East and Heffel’s postwar and contemporary Canadian art and fine Canadian art auctions happening on November 27 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. respectively at Toronto’s Park Hyatt Hotel. Consignor’s fall auction of important Canadian art—an online auction with a bricks-and-mortar showroom on Toronto’s Dundas West—continues as well until November 28. Here are eight stories to watch as the results get hammered down.

1. Jeff Wall Hits the Canadian Auction Market

In Christie’s May 2012 New York auction, Jeff Wall’s Dead Soldiers Speak sold for more than $3.6 million, setting a world record for the Vancouver artist and also making the work the third most expensive photograph ever sold at auction at the time. Because of Wall’s strength on the international market, it’s rare to see his works come up for auction—or sale, for that matter—in the Canadian context. That makes Lot 42 of Heffel’s Canadian post-war and contemporary art auction—Wall’s Park Drive (1994), a large inkjet print on aluminum—especially notable. According to Robert Heffel, it is the first Wall photograph that the auction house has dealt with (however, in 1996, the auction house did offer a drawing by Wall from his early days doing illustrations for the UBC student newspaper). Exhibited earlier this year at the Pinakothek Der Moderne in Munich as one of Wall’s famed lightbox transparencies, the work depicts a road edged by forest in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Consigned by a private collector in Vancouver, the print is estimated at $250,000 to $350,000.

2. Jack Bush Buzz and Art as Therapy Redux

With a big Jack Bush survey just opened at the National Gallery of Canada and the buzz from Bush’s record-breaking 2013 sale at Christie’s New York—in which Red Side Right (Right Side Red) sold for ten times its high estimate—still palpable, it’s not surprising to see several works from the Canadian artist surface in next week’s auctions. Though Bush is best known for his abstract canvases, Waddington’s, for instance, is bringing forward three small landscape paintings from a Nova Scotia collector related to the artist. (The NGC survey includes pre-abstract works as well.) Lot 9, a 1933 oil on board sketch of a rocky shoreline, is estimated at $6,000 to 8,000. On the “classic Bush” front, Heffel’s Lot 24, Dull Day, is a large abstract acrylic on canvas from 1968 estimated at $125,000 to $175,000. Yet the current contemporary-art trend around art-as-therapy also comes to the fore in a couple of lesser known works up for auction at Heffel; Frightened Child (Lot 53, 1958) is said to be related to a dream Bush told Clement Greenberg about, and is possibly connected as well to the therapy that Bush sought for anxiety in the 1940s, when his psychiatrist urged him to “paint his inner feelings and moods as freely as possible,” according to art historian Sarah Stanners. The ragged Cry Cry (1959, water and ink on paper, Lot 40) would also seem to derive from this type of exploration.

3. Quebec Strong

Some of the most expensive works in this season’s auctions are by Quebec artists. This includes five works by Jean-Paul Riopelle, together estimated at $1.3 to $1.9 million, at Heffel in its post-war and contemporary art auction, as well as four works from Clarence Gagnon, together estimated at $647,000 to $906,000 at Heffel’s fine Canadian art auction. One of the Gagnons, The Trapper’s Return (1909–1913, Lot 120) is estimated as the most expensive work in the historical auction at $500,000 to $700,000. The auction house is also offering three works by Paul-Émile Borduas—one of which is a watercolour that was painted on the back of the title page of William Saroyan’s book Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld.

4. More Kurelek Curiosities Surface

It seems there’s always a lot of Kureleks at auction, particularly since the survey “The Messenger” toured the country a couple of years ago. As always, there are a few with curious stories attached. Consignor, for instance, discovered one of the Kureleks at their auction (Lot 16, Ukrainian Proverb) through a public appraisal day. The Etobicoke, Ontario, owner had not known it was a Kurelek; apparently, the artist had given the artwork, in a handmade frame, to the owner’s parents in thanks for a gift of apple strudel. It is estimated at $15,000 to $20,000. Elsewhere, Trudeaumania of the 1970s (not a typical topic for the artist) is reflected in Lot 24 of the Waddington’s auction: Kurelek’s Could That Be Our Prime Minister?, which shows a red-clad skier zipping solo down a snowy mountain. It is estimated at $60,000 to $80,000. And Lot 60 of the Heffel auction is Kurelek’s The Atheist, a stark 1963 painting of a man cutting off the limb of the tree that is supporting his weight. (Though Kurelek made many paintings on bleak or religious themes, they are not often known by the wider public which loves him for the idyllic, nostalgic scenes of books like his Prairie Boy’s Winter.)

5. Emily Carr’s European Debut

With “From the Forest to the Sea,” the first major Emily Carr solo show ever in Europe, just opened this month at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, interest in Carr’s work continues to rise. Her painting Totem Poles, Kitwancool Village, from 1928, is estimated as the second most expensive work in the Heffel auction at $400,000 to $600,000 (Lot 140). It’s one of five works by Carr in that auction; two others are 1934’s Forest Interior with Car and Cottage (Lot 141) estimated at $150,000 to $250,000 and 1936’s Forest Interior, estimated at $100,000 to $150,000. A “mania for all things Carr” mood is further suggested by Consignor’s inclusion of its Lot 23, Klee Wyck Frog Bowl, which is not a painting or a sketch but rather a ceramic vessel of the type Carr produced for a few years in the 1920s when she was struggling to make ends meet. Estimated at $8,000 to $12,000, the bowl is of a form that (according to Studio Ceramics Canada) Carr herself regretted making due to its imitations of so-called “Indian” designs.

6. The Group of Seven’s More Urban Side

Known best for their canvases of the Canadian wilderness—or a particular version thereof—it seems more urban scenes by the Group of Seven are coming to the fore as their nature views become ever rarer on the secondary market. Lot 58 at Waddington’s, for instance, is J.E.H. MacDonald’s Sketch for Tracks and Traffic, a rendering of an industrial scene at the foot of Toronto’s Bathurst Street. It is estimated at $40,000 to 60,000. Lawren Harris’s Houses on Gerrard Street, meanwhile, focuses on a Toronto street scene not far from the Arts and Letters Club where Harris—and the original purchaser of the painting, Guy V. Harris—were members. It’s Lot 145 of the Heffel auction, it is estimated at $350,000 to $450,000. Lot 133 of the Heffel auction, meanwhile, is Arthur Lismer’s A Northern Town, Mattawa, Ontario, estimated at $300,000 to $400,000.

7. Works on Paper, Without Shame

According to Linda Rodeck of Waddington’s, it’s ever more true works that on paper are no longer verboten for serious collectors. The most expensive work in the Waddington’s auction is a watercolour—Jack Shadbolt’s Granville Street at Night (1946, Lot 56). Perhaps reminiscent for some contemporary viewers of Fred Herzog’s photographs of Vancouver at mid-century, the piece shows off the neon signs, sailors and street traffic of the city’s downtown during that era. It is estimated at $100,000 to $150,000. Also notable is Alexander Colville’s PT “Little Poison” 210, Lot 20 in the Heffel auction. A sketch from Colville’s time as a war artist, it shows an American vessel armed with torpedoes and depth charges.

8. Online Secondary Markets Continue to Grow

Online secondary markets continue to grow in Canada. Since Consignor started up last year as an online auction house with a bricks-and-mortar gallery/showroom in Toronto, it has had some breakthroughs—including the record for the highest value ever paid in an online auction for Canadian works of art when it sold two works by Jack Bush for $310,500 and $299,999 in spring 2014. Earlier this fall, Heffel launched a new online platform, HO2, specifically for large-volume corporate art sales. And while it is not an auction house, the online boutique Caviar20 continues to offer notable secondary-market contemporary Canadian artworks, including Michael Snow’s Carla Bley photolitho, Scott McFarland’s Drying Laundry (2007), and Edward Burtynsky’s Socar Oil Fields #3 (2006). It also earlier this year sold a Peter Doig silkscreen, Canoe Island (2000).

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