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Auction Recap: Gavel Gravitas Strikes the Canuck Art Market

Alex Colville French Cross 1988 Courtesy of Heffel Fine Art Auction House

You don’t have to be a dealer to know that now is not a rosy time in the art market. This fall, even mainstream headlines have blazed bad news: London’s October auctions yielded a third less money than predicted, while New York’s auctions earlier this month saw Christie’s reach just half its low presale estimate.

This week, the atmosphere in Toronto remained tense as auctions at the three major Canadian houses gauged the global downturn’s effects on our domestic market.

Heffel’s two auctions on November 19—one of Canadian postwar and contemporary art, and the other of earlier Canadian art—met its low overall estimate of $12 million with a total of $12.6 million. Highlights included Emily Carr’s Alert Bay Burial Ground becoming the third Carr to ever sell over $1 million, and new sales records being set for 12 other works. Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Sans titre (Composition #2) set the highest price for the day with a sale price of $1.6 million. It was hardly all reassuring, however. Alex Colville’s much-vaunted painting French Cross failed to sell, as did 25 percent of all lots.

At Sotheby’s auction on Monday, November 23, the house failed to reach its low overall estimate of $9.5 million, reaching only $8.4 million in total sales. Highlights included the sale of a small Lawren Harris oil sketch, Nerke, Greenland, for $2.07 million. (It was originally slated at just $300,000 to $500,000.) Also on the positive end, an auction record was set for Gershon Iskowitz at $186,000. Still, the overall picture was troubling, with 40 percent of lots going unsold, including a major Frederick Varley work, Green and Gold Portrait of Vera.

Joyner Waddington’s auctions on Tuesday, November 24, and Wednesday, November 25, reflected the previous two auction results. The house just made its low overall sales estimate of $2 million, with total sales in the range of $2 to $2.5 million at press time. Highlights included William Kurlek’s Balsam Avenue After Heavy Snowfall selling for $241,000, which landed above its high estimate of $200,000. Further, a small Jean-Paul Lemieux painting and a large David Blackwood drawing sold for two to three times their high estimates. Still, 35 percent of lots went unsold, among them works by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and A.Y. Jackson.

Considering the results of all three auction houses, Joyner Waddington’s vice-president Rob Cowley said, “The trend we’ve seen all week in all corners of the market—historic Quebec art, contemporary Canadian art, the Group of Seven and more—is that some works have sold very well, while others have failed to reach the reserve.”

Cowley thinks this shows that “the market is being very selective,” with his regrouping strategy for the spring auctions to be “cautiously conservative, even more so than usual.”

The domestic market will be tested one more time this fall as Bonhams conducts its Canadian fine art auction December 2 in Toronto. Among the potential highlights of the Bonhams auction are an A.Y. Jackson painting, a pair of Norval Morrisseau paintings and some newly rediscovered Krieghoff paintings.

But as the past week has showed, only time—and the gavel—will tell.

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