By Laura Beach
Co-curated by American comedian and art collector Steve Martin, the 2015-16 traveling exhibition “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” focused international attention on the Canadian art market and its early Modernist painters, among them Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and members of the Group of Seven. Beyond the record prices, Canada’s vibrant economy and the global access afforded by the digital revolution are stirring interest in a broad range of specialties, from Nineteenth Century topographical views to Inuit art. Auctioneers from Nova Scotia to Vancouver here share their thoughts on the art market’s changing landscape.
Specializing in Canadian, American and European art, Heffel Fine Art Auction House operates galleries and offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The company holds the top two record prices for Canadian art at auction, set when it sold “Mountain Forms” by Lawren S. Harris for $11.21 million CAD in 2016 and “Vent du nord” by Jean-Paul Riopelle for $7,438,750 in 2017. Heffel offers by subscription the Canadian Art at Auction Index, a searchable database of more than 75,000 records accumulated over 30 years.
How international is Heffel’s business?
Our client base has grown over the past 30 years to include almost every serious Canadian art collector. International clients increasingly make up a significant part of our client base and we certainly see some ties to Canada and its artists as a central thread among them.
Modern and contemporary Canadian art is setting new records. Will the trend continue?
If you asked us five years ago, we would have emphatically answered that prices for contemporary Canadian art lags their US and international peers. We feel this is still true, but the gap has begun to narrow. The Riopelle we sold in May 2017 for $7.4 million more than doubled the previous record for the artist, one of Canada’s preeminent Modernists, but is still exceedingly reasonable compared to US and international sales activity.
What’s driving the Canadian art market?
The timing of when quality works become available to the market is important. Equally important is increased international recognition, often through exhibitions and tours, of Canada’s top artists, both contemporary and prewar. “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” is a good example. International collectors were either introduced or became better acquainted with the work of Harris (1885-1970), one of Canada’s most famous artists, which has been positive for the market.
Where does Heffel anticipate market growth?
We anticipate growth in our international sales department. Heffel now includes select international works in our biannual live auctions in Toronto, in addition to biannual online auctions on Heffel.com. In our recent live auction in May, we received very strong results for works by international artists such as Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Eric Fischl (b 1948) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Many important international works are in Canada. We anticipate offering an increasing number of them through our proven platform.
How important are online sales to your mix?
Online sales make up 10 to 20 percent of our sales and have grown substantially in recent years. We definitely believe in the “bricks and clicks” model for the sale of art. You need to do both in order to do either well. That said, we can see our online sales growing to double their current level in five years.
Where do you see your company in ten years?
Heffel is already the leader in the art auction business in Canada. In ten years we want to extend our influence by auctioning more international art through our Canadian venue. Canadians are similarly eager to collect quality international as well as Canadian works. We see Toronto becoming an important art market center, right behind New York and London.
Crowther & Brayley, Ltd.
Established in 1989, Halifax-area auctioneer and appraiser Crowther & Brayley, Ltd, provides services throughout Nova Scotia. Emphasizing estates and collections, the firm led by principal Bill Brayley enjoys a domestic and international following for fine, decorative and folk arts, much of it of reflective of Atlantic Canada’s distinctive heritage. Crowther & Brayley’s annual August sale in Chester, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, attracts buyers from the United States and Canada.
What are some highlights of your August 5 sale?
Our 25th Annual Chester Auction includes a number of interesting Nova Scotia items, among them the oil painting “Sketching Party, Cape Breton, 1954” by Group of Seven artist Frederick Horsman Varley (1881-1969) and a rare China trade painting of a Nova Scotia Carmichael Lines ship in Hong Kong Harbor. We have a good selection of paintings by Maud Lewis (1903-1970), accompanied by correspondence from her to a young university student in 1962.
Speaking of Maud Lewis, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia this summer and a new film are drawing attention to the folk artist, whose work you have long known and handled. What explains her enduring appeal?
Lewis was pure and unpretentious, with a redoubtable spirit. She captured the imagination of all who knew her and her story. Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, certainly highlights the appeal and accessibility of her paintings.
How is the market changing in Nova Scotia?
The market has changed dramatically over the last 15 years as a result of the ongoing demographic shift and the impact of technology and its global reach. Collecting as it existed in the last 30 years will continue to evolve, driven by the “device” generation, which is both design and environmentally conscious. Members of this generation will want to enhance their living spaces with fine and decorative arts, as well as with collectibles relevant to them.
Who are your American buyers and what are they looking for?
There is a large American community with both summer and year-round homes in Nova Scotia. They furnish and decorate these residences with Nova Scotia art and locally made furniture and items of historical interest. In this way, they exhibit the same collecting tendencies as Nova Scotians. Customers of ours who live outside Canada tend to purchase items that relate in some way to the areas in which they live.
Best discovery ever?
One of my best finds was a Russian Czarist miniature silver ciborium for a private chapel. It was destined for an estate garage sale before I rescued it just one day before it was to be offered. We auctioned it in one of our Chester summer sales for $37,000. On another occasion, I assisted a client in the $340,000 sale of an Eighteenth Century Chinese jade censer box that had sat in her china cabinet for more than 30 years until we identified its value.
What do you dream of finding next?
I would love to find an Eighteenth Century North American book or a medieval European manuscript of significant historical interest.
Waddington’s, a Toronto tradition since 1850, conducts more than 20 live auctions annually, plus a growing number of online auctions. The firm maintains a second office in Vancouver. Waddington’s core departments include Asian, Canadian, Contemporary, International and Inuit Art, Decorative Arts and Fine Jewelry, plus a new Fine Wines and Spirits division. Three specialists talk about their fields.
Beyond the Group of Seven, what Canadian artists are of interest to collectors?
Because of current demand, we are seeking works that resonate for two discreet audiences. One core group is focused on the distinct history of Canada and chases mostly Nineteenth Century topographical works. The other focus of top collectors is great Canadian masters from the 1950s through to the early 1970s, painting primarily in a nonrepresentational style. Quebec artists, in particular Les Automatistes and Les Plasticiens, are currently du jour.
What percentage of your business is online and how much do you see that changing?
Currently about 35 percent of our revenue is generated by online sales. However, in our view, online sales cannot replace the live experience. Waddington’s will continue to act opportunistically – live and online sales, themed or seasonal sales – adapting each to suit the potential of the material being featured.
To what may we look forward to in your live auction of Canadian art scheduled for November 20?
The fall Canadian art catalog sale should comprise about 140 lots in total. We have already accepted 45 lots, more than half of which are Group of Seven pictures. The Group pictures are solid bread and butter for us, but my associates and I will soon be hitting the road in search of those rarities that transform a seasonal sale into an event. Stay tuned.
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How long has your firm been a major player in the Inuit art field?
Waddington’s was the first auction house to have a dedicated department for Inuit art, and we are now approaching our 40th anniversary of holding standalone Inuit art auctions. We handle mainly Canadian Inuit artwork, with some Alaskan and Greenlandic work, primarily sculpture, prints and textiles from the 1950s to the 1990s.
How much education is still needed to familiarize buyers with Inuit art?
We have clients and consignors all over the world, but, as with all art forms, education is key to developing and nurturing new collectors. Our website, www.waddingtons.ca, offers the most comprehensive searchable database of artists and artwork. We also manage the
companion website www.katilvik.com, which lets users search Inuit art and artists, and even translate syllabics as they may appear on their artwork. Canada’s incredible public art galleries and museums also foster appreciation for the broad and deep tradition of Inuit art.
Has the push for an international ivory ban changed what you do?
Waddington’s policy is to not accept consignments of post-World War II elephant ivory or any rhino horn, and we fully abide by the CITES international convention regulations when handling materials from plants or animals that may be threatened or endangered. All of our catalogs, for many years, have included a compliance statement to this effect. So the recent push on a total ban on ivory really fits into our longstanding policies in place. Of course, ivory, mostly from walrus, is still a common medium for artists working in the north and would be procured by the Inuit artists themselves or by Inuit hunters. The ivory used for carvings is a by-product of traditional hunting for food. If one of those pieces is purchased by a collector outside of Canada, the appropriate permits would be secured prior to export.
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What went into your June 27 Canada 150 sale?
This sale was a collaborative effort between several departments within the company. We had great luck when we put out a call for consignments, but many things came in by fortuitous happenstance, like the cast iron border marker, which sold for $18,000 CAD. A woolly mammoth tusk from the Yukon did $9,000. Two silver Canadian Peace Medals did $15,600 and $13,200 respectively.
Where do you see the market heading?
It seems there are fewer collectors who like to amass large quantities of similar things. I think today people tend to decorate with one or two good pieces of silver, or a Victorian microscope, rather than 70 Royal Doulton figurines. I love the unusual and tend to get excited about interesting things I don’t see every day. I’m especially interested in science and medicine, natural and Canadian political history and antique weaponry, among other things.
Tim Isaac Antiques, Art & Auctions
Tim Isaac operates his antiques business and auction house out of historic Saint John, N.B. Prominent in the Eighteenth Century as a haven for United Empire Loyalists from the American colonies and in the Nineteenth Century as a center for shipping, the port city and surrounding province still yield important examples of locally made furniture, marine art and antiques, and notable Canadian paintings. Saint Andrews, a seaside resort dating to 1881, is an hour away.
How did you start?
We’ve been in business for 48 years. We started small and graduated to an auction company representing mainly local and provincial estates. There’s always been a big connection between this area and the United States. Many Maritimers moved to Boston. By the same token, American dealers have been picking here for decades. With so much material moving back and forth, I find I’m in New England as much as I’m at home.
What’s on your wish list?
We’re always looking for furniture by Thomas Nisbet of Saint John, New Brunswick, and John Tulles of Halifax, Nova Scotia, two of Canada’s premier craftsmen working in the early Nineteenth Century. We’ve had ten or 15 pieces of Nisbet furniture that came out of the United States. There were also good cabinetmakers in St Stephen, Woodstock and Fredericton, New Brunswick, and others besides Tulles in Nova Scotia. With the internet, nothing much gets missed anymore.
And Canadian paintings?
We get three or four a year by Anthony Flower (1792-1875), an early New Brunswick artist born in London. We also like John A. Hammond (1843-1939) and Edward Russell (1832-1906), who did ships portraits here and in Massachusetts. We get paintings by folk artist Maud Lewis from children of people who stopped by her studio in the 1960s. We regularly sell works by Miller Brittain (1812-1968), Jack W. Humphrey (1901-1967) and Fred Ross (1827-2014). I handle 20 paintings a year by Tom Forrestall (b 1936). You can get a lovely Forrestall watercolor for $2,000 and a very nice egg tempera for between $8,000 and $10,000 CAD.
Do you see many Americans?
The tourist season has picked up because of the exchange rate, but we sell fewer things to Americans than we did 30 years ago. If we come up with a very high-end American object, we generally send it off to Skinner or Julia. Our sales still draw good crowds. They are very social and we don’t charge a buyer’s premium.
You never know. People we’ve dealt with for years call out of the blue. For instance, we were called to Sackville, New Brunswick, where we found a small Lawren Harris painting hanging behind the door in an upstairs bedroom. It brought about $250,000, and that was nearly 20 years ago.
Special auctions coming up?
We’re selling the Allen Bentley collection on October 9. It features paintings by Miller Brittain and a Thomas Nisbet table.