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News / May 25, 2017

$7.4-Million Jean Paul Riopelle Painting Breaks World Record at Auction

It is the second-highest amount ever paid for a Canadian artwork at auction—and according to auction house, it signals Toronto as a new art-market centre.
Jean Paul Riopelle's <em>Vent du nord</em> (1952–53) is more than six feet wide, and was produced during the Canadian artist's many decades in France. Jean Paul Riopelle's Vent du nord (1952–53) is more than six feet wide, and was produced during the Canadian artist's many decades in France.

Vent du nord, a large Jean Paul Riopelle canvas created in 1952-53, sold for more than $7.4 million at a Toronto auction last night, setting a world record for the internationally collected artist.

That is more than four times the initial estimate of $1-to-$1.5 million dollars provided by Heffel auction house. It is also the second-highest amount ever paid for a Canadian artwork at auction. (The highest was over $11 million for Lawren Harris’ Mountain Forms, which Heffel sold at its most recent fall auction.)

The auction house says that bidding for Vent du nord was international, with calls coming in over the phone from various points outside of Canada. Riopelle himself, though born in Canada, later lived and worked, and was well known, abroad—being “seen as much as a French and specifically Parisian artist as Canadian,” art historian Mark Cheetham writes in the Heffel auction catalogue.

“Riopelle was the most internationally acclaimed Canadian artist of his generation,” Cheetham, who is a professor of art history at the University of Toronto, writes. “He was a prominent member of the pivotal Quebec avant-garde group Les Automatistes before moving to France in 1947. There he became part of the Surrealist circle, the only Canadian to exhibit with them in a landmark 1947 exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. Paintings such as Vent du nord subsequently confirmed Riopelle’s reputation as a leading artist of French Lyrical Abstraction, of taschisme, informel, and most generally of the École du Paris, all descriptions that opposed the expressive, unbridled freedom of painterly expression that we see here to the hard-edged, geometrical tendencies increasingly prevalent in both American colour field paitning of the time and the generations of Montreal abstractionists known as Les Plasticiens.”

Riopelle also participated, Cheetham notes, in the Venice Biennale in 1954 and 1962, with his work being “a focal point for debates about the increasingly wide and fractious gap between post–World War II European and American abstract painting” before he died in 2002.

Other highlights from the Heffel auction last night include the sale of an abstract Lawren Harris painting, LSH 89B (1937), for double its initial estimate ($451,250 vs. 200,000 estimate). Harris’ abstract works have generally been less in demand than his landscapes, though that may be changing with a related exhibition now on at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection—not to mention recent American museum shows of the artist’s landscapes.

International artworks by Andy Warhol and Barbara Hepworth were also touted at the auction, both doubling their estimates. Warhold’s Karen Kain (F.S.IIB.236) (1980) test proof sold for $115,250 when estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, while Hepworth’s bronze Figure (Chun) (1960) went for $289,250 versus a low estimate of $120,000.

“Today’s sale was a building block for Toronto’s growth as a major international art market centre,” said David Heffel, president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, in a release.

Canada’s spring auction season continues this week on May 25 with a Consignor Fine Art auction of important Canadian art and on May 29 with Waddington’s Canadian fine art auction. Both take place in Toronto.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via