The art market was strong going into this auction season. Art has seen a boom throughout COVID – stuck at home buyers used this down time to expand their collections.
Both the spring and fall 2020 auction seasons saw important Canadian art selling well over their auction house estimates (sometimes two to three times over asking). Notable examples include a painting by the contemporary Indigenous artist Lawrence Yuxweluptun, Untitled (lot 30, Heffel), which sold two times its estimate for $55,250 and an early Lawren Harris (Lot 42, Waddington’s) that sold well above its estimate for $132,000.
Despite a relaxing of restrictions, this spring auction season gave more strong results. The average sell through rate for the three houses was 91%. Of special note, the Cowley Abbott auction came close to being a white glove sale with only two unsold lots the entire night!
This season, Emily Carr took centre stage with two exceptional sales at Heffel. Tossed by the Wind (Lot 116), sold for $3,121,250 and Swirl (lot 120), sold for $2,341,250. Both paintings sold two times their estimated price.
Carr’s success spoke to a wider appetite amongst collectors to purchase work by historic women artists. At Cowley Abbot a portrait, Mrs. Decco, by Prudence Heward (lot 28) set a new auction record, selling for $90,000. At Heffel, the historic watercolour artist Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins set a new auction record for the painting, A Green Pool, French River, Canada (lot 101). The painting sold six times its estimate for $193,250.
Cornelius Krieghoff and Homer Watson, contemporaries of Hopkins, also had impressive sales.
Quebec Farm, by Krieghoff (Lot 122), sold at Heffel for $571,250, a new auction record for the artist. Another large scale painting by the artist, Moonlight, (lot 16) sold at Waddington’s for $390,000, well above its estimate. The Old Mill, by Homer Watson (Lot 3), sold at Cowley Abbott, three times its estimate for $38,400.
Historic art from the late 19th century was at its market height in the mid 1980s. Since then tastes have shifted away from art from this period towards modern and post-war art. While 19th century Canadian art may not be of central interest, these stellar sales are a reminder that iconic works from this period continue to increase in value.
Results from the top end of the post-war market were mixed.
Two large works by the acclaimed Jean Paul Riopelle (lots 31 and 42) failed to sell. But a very small painting by Riopelle sold six times over its estimate for $205,250. This 1978 painting was from a critical juncture in the artist’s career when he returned to Quebec after spending two decades in Europe. This return to Quebec would inspire a new body of work around ideas of Canada’s north. Work from this period was featured this year in an important exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The sale proved that it’s not always size but often the story behind a work that matters.
A contemporary of Riopelle, Indigenous artist Rita Letendre, set a new auction record for a large scale work from her early Automatiste period. This unique painting sold four times its estimate for $289,250 at Heffel. Another standout from the Montreal school was a powerful Jean Albert Mcewen, Sans Titre, that sold two times its estimate for $181,250 at Heffel.
Art by colour fields artists like William Perefudoff and Jack Bush performed well. A mid-sized Perehudoff (lot 29), AC-01-007, sold two times its estimate for $22,500 at Heffel. Bush had two impressive sales. First at Waddington’s the painting Green Up (lot 26) by the artist sold for $324,000 and later at Heffel Yellow Road Mark (lot 16) sold for almost twice its estimate for $391,250.
Contemporary art sold surprisingly well this spring. As a general rule, Canadian contemporary art tends to sell below its retail price at auction. But this season proved that exceptional works will sell for exceptional prices!
An iconic painting from Wanda Koop’s Green Zone Series sold well above its estimate for $31,200 at Waddington’s. This series from the early 2000s explored the confused way in which the media covered the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some twenty years later the work has renewed cultural significance.
Green Tree Blue Tree, by Kim Droland (lot 43) sold at Cowley Abbott for $66,000, an auction record for the artist. The work was originally exhibited as part of an important retrospective for the artist at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Another contemporary landscape artist, John Hartman, set an auction record for a painting, The Old Port and Mount Royal (lot 75), at Cowley Abbott. The painting is part of his iconic cityscape series from the early 2000s. The painting sold for $24,000.
December 2nd and 3rd, 2020, Heffel and Cowley Abbott respectively hosted their fall live auction sales.
A week before the auctions, Toronto implemented new COVID restrictions effectively halting all in person viewings of the two auction houses’ preview shows. The sales were held virtually and bidding was restricted to phone, absentee and online.
Despite these challenges the market proved resilient and sales were strong. The average sell through rate for the two houses was 87% – up from 85% in July and September.
The quality of the work for sale at both Heffel and Cowley Abbott was striking. Several important and unique works were for sale including an iconic1965 Jack Bush (lot 24), a very large James Morrice (lot 116) and an unique John Little (lot 152).
A take away from these sales was the importance of date when evaluating the worth of a painting. Every artist has a prime period that is most critically acclaimed. Works from this period are often harder to come by and will have a higher value than other works by the same artist.
At the top of the market, Jean-Paul Riopelle narrowly held onto top position with two million dollar sales at Heffel. Sans Titre (lot 16) and La ligne d’eau (lot 38), sold for $1.4M and $1.2M respectively. Sans Titre was the auction cover lot and is an important early work by the artist. Although an impressive figure the sale fell slightly below market expectations and a recent 1.7 M sale for a similar painting (Sans titre, lot 59) at the Sotheby’s Rembrandt to Richter Evening Sale held in London this July.
Next at Heffel, the post-impressionist painter James Morrice sailed past the million dollar mark with a $1.1M sale for La plage (lot 116). It was an important sale that will help to solidify the artists top end market. The sale was only the artist’s forth million dollar sale at auction and his third highest realised price at auction.
The artist continued to have a fantastic week with two more important sales. A small study Coast in Brittany (lot 28) sold four times its presale low estimate for $45,600 at Cowley Abbott and another Brittany landscape, Harvest Time – Brittany (lot 143), sold six times the presale low estimate for $97,250 at Heffel.
Jack Bush capped off the auction week setting a new auction record for the 1960s painting Column on Browns (lot 24). The painting sold for $870,000 at Cowley Abbott, $100,000 over the artist’s most recent auction record for a similar sash style painting (Red Side Right, lot 3), set in July 2013 at Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art sale.
Sales performed equally well at the mid-range of the market.
The Heffel Impressionist and Modern sale started with a blast when a Group of Seven era A.J. Casson, Lake Rosseau (lot 104), sold three times over it’s presale low estimate for $79,250.
John Little capped off the night at Heffel, selling an early 1950s period painting, Rue Fabrique, Quebec (lot 152), four times its presale low estimate for $133,250. The sale was an auction record for the artist.
What made the sale even more exceptional is the fact that the same work sold in November 2015 at Waddington’s (lot 6) for $30,680. Little’s former auction record was set only last year at Heffel’s fall sale when another early 1950s canvas sold for $85,250. Both sales suggest growth in Little’s market. This is likely influenced by his recent retirement from painting and a 2017 retrospective, City Life from 1951, and book publication by the Alan Klinkhoff Gallery.
Two works by Jock Macdonald and Tom Hodgson of the Painters Eleven group also performed well. Macdonald’s 1956 Pulsing Sound (lot 20) sold two times over its presale low estimate for $31,250. Hodson’s early Non Objective (Bluish) (lot 11) sold almost three times over its presale low estimate for $72,000.
Growth in female art
Female artists are dramatically underrepresented at auction. This fall, 15% of Cowley Abbott’s available lots and 9% of Heffel’s were produced by women. There is, however, a growth trend in the price of many female artists at auction.
Emily Carr continues to be an overall market leader at auction. This fall Carr had three important sales suggesting continued market strength. Cowley Abbott sold a late landscape, Forest Glade (lot 30), for $216,000 and Heffel sold another landscape from the same period, June (lot 115), for $277,250. A third watercolour, South Bay, Skidegate (lot 124), from the late 1920’s sold well over its estimate at Heffel for $811,250.
What sets the earlier watercolour apart from the two late period Carr’s sold the same week? South Bay was painted on the island of Haida Gwaii and during an important period for the artist (when she was exchanging with members of the Group of Seven). The iconic location and period both contribute to the value of the painting.
Another female artist who is quietly establishing her market is Rita Letendre. In 2017 the Art Gallery of Ontario held an important retrospective, Rita Letendre, Fire & Light, that reframed her legacy as not only an important member of the Quebec Automatiste movement but also a pioneering voice of post-war indigenous art.
Letendre’s price at auction has consistently grown over the past couple years. This sale was no exception. A highlight for the artist was the sale at Heffel of an early 1950s work, Lutte (lot 28), that sold two times over it’s presale low estimate for $52,250.
The Canadian contemporary art market is being led by indigenous artists. This trend extends to contemporary art being sold at auction. At Heffel a recent Lawrence Yuxweluptun painting, Untitled (lot 30), sold two times over its presale low estimate for $55,250. The sale was a new auction record for the artist.
More generally, contemporary art continues to be an area of opportunity for bargain hunters. Unlike the international art market, Canadian contemporary art tends to sell below its normal retail value at auction.
A fantastic John Hartman, Tar Island (lot 64), came to auction at Cowley Abbott. The painting has a great date (2001) and highlights the artist’s aesthetic (soft brushy skies, impasto landscape). The work did well and sold between it’s presale estimate for $9,000. Another great find was an Evan Penny, Back of Danny #3 (lot 46), hanging sculpture that sold at Heffel for $28,125.
The next live auction cycle will take place in spring 2021.
This year Art Toronto, under the leadership of Mia Nielson, held a digital fair from October 28 to November 8th. The fair brought together galleries from across the country on the Art Toronto platform. The online fair gave visitors a chance to browse the offering of the different galleries and attend online art talks hosted on the site. Several galleries also hosted smaller in person events in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.
Galleries reported steady sales throughout the fair supporting positive market conditions suggested in September with the results from the Cowley Abbott and Waddinton’s live auctions.
Banza was born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo and is a Canadian Congolese artist living in Montreal. Earlier in 2020 he was awarded the Sobey Art Award (along with the other 25 long listed artists). His work has been shown at both the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. His success at Art Toronto indicates the artist’s reach is growing beyond Quebec! I would not be surprised to hear of an important Toronto show happening in the near future.
The AGO also acquired work by Northwest Coast Indigenous artist Luke Parnell of MKG127. Parnell was another artist highlighted at this year’s fair. As part of the official programming, Parnell presented a video and sculpture project. In this conceptual piece the artist responded to a 1959 documentary by the famous Haida artist Bill Reid.
Finally, the museum made an important acquisition of a series of five historic photographs by Mina Keene of the Stephen Bulger Gallery. These photographs from the early 1900s will boost representation of historic female artists in the museum’s collection.
The Scotia Bank corporate art collection purchased Road Trip by Niall McClelland of Clint Roenisch and Zebulon Perron purchased a work by Jessica Thalmann, Pleats Coculus, of Angell Gallery.
Contemporary Art Sales
Katheryn Macnaughton of Bau-Xi Gallery continues to be a force to watch. This abstract painter continues to sell out as quickly as she can produce. Early in the fair her gallery reported the sale of three works.
United Contemporary reported the sale of two portraits by the artist Gordon Shadrach. Shadrach was outspoken about the representation of BIPOC in Canadian Art this summer and used social media to raise awareness around the issue. In 2018 he was part of a group show “We are Here” exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Royal Ontario Museum.
There are a couple great pop up shows opening in Toronto this weekend as part of Art Toronto !
Calgary gallery Masters Gallery will be exhibiting works in the Four Seasons Hotel through till November 1, 2020. They’ve brought an impressive collection of Impressionist, Group of Seven and Automatiste era art. For anyone who wants to get to know Quebec abstract art beyond Jean-Paul Riopelle, they have a beautiful Marcelle Ferron and Lise Gervais on display!
Finally the René Blouin Gallery and Gallery Division merged to form Blouin Division this summer. They will host a show featuring a selection of artists from both galleries in their Toronto space. As an added bonus Georgia Scherman Projects will also be using the space to showcase their roster of artists. The two shows promise a great collection of contemporary painting including works by Wanda Koop, Marie Claire Blais and Melanie Authier!
Book a private gallery tour or for more information on my services please contact Clinton Art Services.
My top three picks for great art talks to take advantage of next week as part of Art Toronto! With so many free art talks happening digitally it is easier than ever to get informed.
I’ve pulled out a couple great talks that focus on culturally significant artists that have been recognized by both the market and important public institutions.
London and Jack Bush
Sunday November 1 at 1PM EST, Michael Gibson Gallery will host a virtual talk with the Director of the Jack Bush Catalogue Raisonné project, Sarah Stanners. She will discuss a 1973 work by the artist, London #8.
I love that the talk will focus on an single work! Stanners will give context to the work by exploring Bush’s late career when he was at the height of his international success.
Early Michael Snow
November 4 at 3PM EST, the Art Gallery of Hamilton will host a virtual talk with the curator James King of the exhibition, Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947 – 1962.
The exhibition will look at the first 15 years of Snow’s career before he left Toronto for New York. Viewers are invited to consider this period of experimentation and its influence on Snow’s later iconic Walking Women series.
Added bonus the gallery Michael Gibson Gallery has three photographs by Michael Snow on offer at their Art Toronto Pop up show at the Stephen Bulger Gallery.
Dale Chihuly Drawings
On November 8 at 7:30 PM EST, the Sandra Ainsley Gallery is hosting a virtual opening for their Dale Chihuly exhibition. As a Montrealer this American glass art artists has a special place in my heart! I absolutely love his sculpture, the Sun, that stands outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts !
Chihuly takes the tradition of glass art and brings it into the realm of large scale installation sculpture. Chihuly is a creative force that bridges an American West Coast aesthetic with the Italian glass blowing tradition. I’m especially excited that this show will include examples of his drawings.
Talks will be hosted on the Art Toronto online portal. Fair runs October 28 until November 8th.
To Organize a virtual visit of the fair or for more information on my services please contact Clinton Art Services.
In May 2020, due to COVID regulations, the Canadian live auctions were postponed. Heffel rescheduled their spring sale for July 15th. Waddington’s and Cowley Abbott postponed their sales until September 17th and 24th respectively.
How has the economic uncertainty of the pandemic affected the Canadian art market?
Going through the results it is clear that the Canadian art resale market (secondary market) has proven to be resilient to the negative economic effects of COVID. Post COVID auction sales averaged a sell through rate of 85% – which is actually up from 80%, in Fall 2019.
At the top of the market, Heffel sold an Alex Colville and a Jean Paul Riopelle for $2.4 million and $1.2 million respectively. Waddinton’s had a standout sale of an early Lawren Harris (Lot 42) selling well above it’s estimate and reaching a realised price of $132,000. Cowley Abbott’s cover lot a David Milne (Lot 9) and a late addition Guido Molinari (Lot 48a) both sold for $82,600.
Female artists from the Group of Seven era (1915 to 1930) did very well. At the Heffel sale Yvonne M. Housser (Lot 129) set a new artist record with a $202,250 sale. Montreal artist Kathleen Morris (Lot 17) set the stage at Cowley Abbott with a $62,150 sale.
The usual names dominated the top end of the market: Jean Paul Riopelle, Lawren Harris and Tom Thomson. But from an investment perspective, I’m more interested in the artists who most exceeded their pre-sale estimate. Two standouts that sold five times their low estimate were a Walter J. Phillips watercolour (Lot 101) selling for $157,250 at Heffel and a William Perehudoff (Lot 8) selling for $66,000 at Waddington’s.
There were of course a handful of disappointments. I was surprised to see a David Altmejd (Lot 28) sculpture at Heffel go unsold. Especially after the sensational 2015 exhibition, Flux, of his work at the MAC in 2015! In my opinion the sculpture would make a great addition to a corporate collection showcasing contemporary Canadian art.
Despite an impressive offering, sales of contemporary art at auction remain soft. Unlike the United States, Canada does not have a developed secondary market for living contemporary artists (anyone who started working after the 1990s).
Waddington’s offered an iconic Wanda Koop (Lot 51) that sold below it’s estimate and Cowley Abbott had an early David Alexander (Lot 71) that failed to sell. For collectors with a little patience there is definite opportunity in purchasing contemporary art at auction.
Kent Monkman (Lot 29) was the only contemporary artist to bulk the trend selling at Waddington’s within its presale estimate for $40,000. This is the artist’s third market setting sale in the last 12 months, following a realised price of $82,500 in June 2020 at ByDealer’s and $91,500 in November 2019 at Waddington’s.
The next live auction cycle will take place in late November. The market will have to face the US election outcome and COVID but with the information available to date we can expect resilience.
This year the Bobbie Burgers surprised the art world by taking on a new gallery Nicholas Metivier Gallery. She used the opportunity to make a shift in her aesthetic. She is currently represented by Equinox Gallery in Vancouver, BC and Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto, ON.
I love seeing the evolution of an artist’s style! Burgers is not a small name in the Canadian art world, she has dominated the scene for years now. It would be easy for her to stick to her popular flower inspired canvases. But with this new body of work, she blows up the flowers and gives us something that exposes her debt to the abstract expressionist movement.
In her artist statement she credits the great early abstract painter Joan Mitchell as an influence. Seeing the new work, I couldn’t help thinking about the Mitchell painting on view at Heffel Auction House last November. There is a clear call to the older artist in Burgers new work.
At the same time she hasn’t abandoned her earlier style. I see a thoughtful but intentional evolution of style with this new body. It’s very exciting!
This Toronto artist builds on the history of Abstract Expressionism and combines it with a contemporary aesthetic. She is currently represented by Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto, ON, and Vancouver, BC.
With a background in graphic design Macnaughton composes lively compositions by combining graphic shapes. In her early work these shapes referenced nature (female form, plant life, ect) but more recently she has let herself go full abstract.
What sets Macnaughton’s work apart is the loose wash treatment that fill her shapes. There is this wonderful tension between the hard edge of the shape outlines and the soft bleeds that define their silhouettes. The work feels both controlled and chaotic and loads of fun!
Melanie Authier is a painter’s painter. Her work engages and plays with the act of painting. She is currently represented by the Georgia Sherman Project in Toronto, ON.
Authier describes herself as an abstract artist who uses strategies borrowed from representational art. Processed through an abstract vocabulary she explores elements of the painting tradition like colour, edges, mark and space.
Her work is a return to a 1950s school of abstract painting where all of the thinking and play happens on the canvas. The artist starts by creating a problem (maybe two colours that don’t complement or a total lack of colour) and than she tries to find a solution through the act of painting. There is such swagger and confidence to her work!
David Alexander is an established contemporary painter who has been exhibiting across Canada since the 1980s. He is currently represented by Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto, ON, and Vancouver, BC. This fall several of his early works have come to auction at Heffel Auction and Cowley Abbott. An artists auction record speaks to the longevity of their market.
As a collector, it is also an opportunity to study the artists progression as an artist. Comparing the early Alexander painting with his current works highlights his use of space, an essential element in his work.
In his early art there is a certain freedom in his depiction of space but he ultimately maintains a classical depiction of depth in his landscape.
In his more contemporary work the landscape is separated and flattened out. Alexander breaks his work into two categories, wet and dry. Landscape is made separate from waterscapes. Also by focusing on one part of nature he plays with perspective and flattens out any sense of space. Instead of depth he gives us a kind of staking sensation.
By reducing the sense of space Alexander pulls his landscapes into the realm of abstract painting. I’ve always loved art that straddles the abstract and landscape genre and Alexander is a standout example.
Marie Claire Blais
Marie-Claire Blais is an exciting artist because she is not afraid to chase an idea. She is currently represented by Blouin Division in Toronto, ON, and Montreal, QC.
Over the past decade she has been making art that explores and plays with the material burlap. It started during a 2013 residency in Mexico, when Blais noticed the omnipresence of this commercial material. For Blais there was an interesting tension between the cheap cost of the material and its central importance.
Moving the material into the gallery sphere, Blais challenges her audience to associate a commercial grade material with fine art. Over the next several years Blais has experimented and played with the material in a variety of ways.
Already using aerosol spray paint in her practice she first started using the burlap as a kind of stencil. Pulling and loosening the weave she used her burlap stencil to build up colour and create paintings that from a distance look like intricate tapestries.
Next, returning to a black and white composition, Blais started to work directly on the burlap – using it as her canvas. Dying the fabric she plays with the texture of the material giving an Agnues Martin grid feel to the work.
Finally in her latest 2020 series Blais uses the material as a painting surface but takes the work a step further by cutting and reforming her surface into a kind of sculptural form.
This is a great example of an artist who makes play a central force in their practice.
Contemporary artists are generally shown at one to three galleries. Every year or so, these galleries will host a solo exhibition of the artist’s new work. Finding a good selection of their work is a straightforward process.
A major challenge for collectors when sourcing Canadian historic art is that generally, a famous historic artist’s inventory is spread out over several galleries – and most galleries only have at most a couple examples of an artist’s work in their inventory at a time. And so, knowing what is available across the market means visiting a lot of galleries.
Art Toronto brings together a large cross section of Canadian galleries under one roof. It’s an opportunity for collectors to get a more global sense of what Canadian historic art is available for sale. It’s also an opportunity to compare gallery prices.
The challenge of Art Toronto, for collectors, is navigating the fair. Trying to find a Jack Bush, a Jean-Paul Lemieux or a William Perehudoff among all the installation and contemporary art can feel like a scavenger hunt.
For collectors or Canadian art enthusiasts looking to see Canadian historic art, this post will help you discover the different famous Canadian artists showing at Art Toronto and show you where to find them.
Early Canadian Art
One critique I have of the fair is the lack of representation of early 19th century Canadian art. Over the past five years Art Toronto has made its focus international and contemporary art. Important Canadian historic art Galleries like Loch Gallery, Mayberry Fine Art and Alan Klinkhoff don’t show at the fair and it means we don’t see many early Canadian painters like Cornelius Krieghoff, William Brymner or Frederic Verner.
This year, Montréal’s Galerie Claude Lafitte and Calgary’s Masters Gallery are both showing works from the Canadian Impressionist movement. In the 1880’s, early Canadian artists started traveling to France to study art. These painters were exposed to French Impressionism and their work explores broken colour and brushy mark making.
Three artists for collectors to watch out for at the fair from this impressionist period are Clarence Gagnon, Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, and Paul Peel. Gagnon and Suzor-Coté are excellent examples of artists who adapted the French Impressionist style to depict the Quebec winter landscape. They exploited the movements obsession with colour to incorporate hues of purple, pink and blue into their snow scenes.
Group of Seven
The Group of Seven is considered Canada’s most iconic painting group. Their work helped usher early Canadian art into the modern era. From 1913 to 1933, these artists worked to create a uniquely Canadian painting language. It wasn’t until the Laing Galleries opened in the 1930’s that collectors discovered their art.
According to the Art Toronto program there should be an A.J. Casson paintings on view at both the Roberts Gallery (Toronto), and Oeno Gallery (Prince Edward County). The youngest member of the Group of Seven, Casson joined the group in 1926 at the invitation of Franklin Carmichael. He continued to paint well into the post war era.
The Group of Seven are best known for pure landscape subjects. However, Casson is equally celebrated for his large scale works that show scenes of village life. His interpretation of clouds is similar in aesthetic to the mountain forms, in the Algoma and Lake Superior paintings, done by Lawren Harris. Both artist incorporate a sense of pure geometric forms into their art to express the essence of nature.
For collectors looking for Group of Seven art, JEH MacDonald, Lawren Harris and Emily Carr will also be on view.
Jean-Paul Lemieux is an artist whose work acts as a bridge between the Modern and Abstract periods of art in Quebec. A student of Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (on view at Galerie Claude Lafitte), he has a strong connection to the classical tradition. But his work is all about expression and shapes. While his work remains figurative, we can feel the pull towards abstraction that would define the work of his contemporaries.
Lemieux is not a household name like artists from the Group of Seven, but he consistently performs well at auction and is sought after by collectors. He is an artist worth noting.
This year three galleries will be showing his work at Art Toronto, including Masters Gallery, Galerie Claude Lafitte, and Miriam Shiell Fine Art. Just looking at the galleries who represent Lemieux speaks to the hybrid nature of his work. Lafitte and Masters are known for their focus on early and modern art, while Miriam Shiell specializes in abstract art (and is known to bring a couple good examples of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism for collectors to see at Art Toronto).
Marc-Aurele Fortin, Maud Lewis and Peter Clapham Sheppard will also be on view.
Canadian Abstract Art
A fun game to play at Art Toronto: test your ability to tell the difference between a Jack Bush and a William Perehudoff painting. These two Colour Field artists are both known for large, thinly painted, abstract paintings of floating shapes. Part of the crossover in their art is from the long lasting relationship they both had with the New York art critic and collector Clement Greenberg.
The trick to spotting the differences is to know a little about their biographies. Bush was a Toronto illustrator who spent a good deal of time in New York with artists from the Abstract Expressionist movement. His colours and the sense of narrative in his Colour Fields work come from his background as an illustrator.
Perehudoff was from Saskatoon, and part of the Emma Lake Workshop. His choice in colour and shape is influenced by the prairie landscape. Compared to Bush, his colours are more muted and earthy. Throughout the fair collectors can see works by landscape painters Greg Hardy and Dorothy Knowles who were part of the same Emma Lake Workshop. Comparing Perehudoff’s Colour Fields work to his landscape contemporaries makes his connection to the land more obvious.
Miriam Shiell and Masters Gallery will both be showing works by Jack Bush, and William Perehudoff will be on view at Han Art (Montreal), Masters Gallery, and Rukaj Gallery (Toronto).
So far I have counted four Jean-Paul Riopelle paintings and prints expected to be on view at Art Toronto. Riopelle holds the top spot for total auction sales for a Canadian artist. There is a healthy appetite for his work in Canada but also abroad. Riopelle was part of an international group of artists working in post-war Paris. He was also part of the famous Pierre Matisse Gallery. His relationship to international artists like Joan Mitchell and Zao Wou-Ki mean that his work still sells internationally at auction. Because of the popularity of his work, it is no surprise to see so many of his works on view at the fair.
Another member of the Automatiste movement with a presence at this year’s fair is Rita Letendre. She will be showing at Masters Gallery, Galeries Claude Lafitte, and Rumi Galleries (Oakville).
Like many female artists of her generation, her work was given its dues late in her career. In 2003-2004 she had her first retrospective at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and in 2017 the Art Gallery of Ontario presented a solo show of her work. In the past couple years the price of female artists from this period has been growing. Many were overlooked in their prime, and now we are seeing their price grow and catch up to their male counter parts.
There is a long list of Abstract painters on view at the fair. Both Painters Eleven and the Automatiste movement are well represented. For collectors looking to compare stock and price, the following artists will be shown at multiple galleries: Paul-Emile Borduas, Paterson Ewen, Ray Mead, Richard Gorman, Ron Martin, and William Ronalds.
Art Toronto Collector’s Experience
Join me the weekend of October 25-27, 2019, for a 90 minute private tour of the Art Toronto fair.
Building on what we have discussed in this post, we will use the different examples of famous Canadian painters, on view at Art Toronto, to explain how historic paintings are priced.
Why is a Lawren Harris painting done between 1918 and 1927 worth more than his later abstract work?
The cliche in the art world is to say “buy what you love”. I agree that personal taste should be the driving force in choosing fine art to consider for purchase. But once you’ve determined a painting of interest there are a host of factors that should be taken into account before you buy for an art collection. Although each artwork requires a set of unique considerations, I have a template or process that helps guide me as I consider paintings for a collection.
In Spring 2019 I had the great pleasure of working with a client to purchase Evening Encampment, by Frederick Verner, at the Canadian & Inuit Fine Art auction held at Waddington’s Auction House.
Frederick Arthur Verner (1836 – 1928), Evening Encampment, 1876
Using this notable acquisition as an example, I will walk you through my decision making process when evaluating art for a collection. This painting was purchased at auction, so this article also gives an overview of how I prepare to bid at auction.
What are the steps to evaluate fine art?
Find out if the artist is part of any major collections and if they are the subject of scholarly research.
Compare the painting’s subject to other works by the artist.
Determine what period in the artist’s career the work was painted.
Compare the paintings size to other works by the artist. The general rule of thumb is bigger is better.
Ask for a condition report or have the painting evaluated by a professional restorer.
Research the provenance of the work
Use public auction records to determine the fair market value of an artist.
Step 1: The Artist
When evaluating an artist, I look to see if their work is collected by Museums or important private collectors; if they have had a recent exhibition nationally or internationally and if and how many books have been written about the artist.
Frederick Arthur Verner
There is one seminal book written on the work of Verner, The Last Buffalo, by the acclaimed Canadian Art Scholar Joan Murray.
His work is part of a long list of museum collections including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and the Glenbow Museum. His last major exhibition was at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1920.
From all of this I can determine that Frederick Verner has an important place in Canadian culture. But given the delay since his last retrospective we know that contemporary interest is not at the same level as that of an artist like Jean-Paul Riopelle or Emily Carr – who have both had museum shows in the last five year.
Step 2: Subject
If I’m considering buying a work for a collection, we’ve already determined that the image captures my client on a visceral level. At this stage I want to understand the significance of the subject in terms of the artist’s overall production.
The aim is to indicate work that has a series of pictorial elements that showcase what makes this artist unique and great. Here I’m relying on the opinion of Canadian Fine Art scholars who have researched and written about the artist. I also spend a lot of time looking at images by the artist in art books and at art museums.
First Nation life in Manitoba
Verner is best known for his watercolours and oils of First Nation life in Manitoba. He is also very well known for his scenes of Buffalos on the prairies. Having actually visited and sketched Manitoba, his work is praised for its authentic depiction of 19th century Western Canada.
Verner is part of the Romantic movement that was popular in Europe and North America in the 19th century. Like other Romantic painters, he is known for his ability to create a sense of emotion through expressive skies and atmosphere.
In the later part of his career he moves to Europe and paints the British countryside. These are not considered as innovative as his scenes of First Nation life in Manitoba.
The Encampment scene we are considering has a lot of key Verner elements. It is a beautiful scene of the historic First Nation culture and the scene takes place under a dramatic night sky.
Step 3: Date
Another indicator of a paintings importance is it’s date. There is a life cycle to an artists career. Usually an artist will have an early period where they are still finding their voice. A middle period where they have success and make their name as an artist. And finally, a late period when they slow down and the work becomes less interesting. For some artists the opposite is true: they are best known for their early work.
Period after his trip to Manitoba
Verner’s best period is considered to be from approximately 1873 to 1900 (although his later Buffalo paintings maintain their status). In 1873 he is documented as travelling west to Manitoba for the first time. During his prime period, his work is based on plein air sketches from that trip and others he did to see his subject. In the 1880s he moves to London and after 1900 he stops visiting Canada. His later work of First Nation life is criticized as less authentic.
Of course it’s interesting to have examples of every period in an artist’s career. For most collector’s, however, there are financial restraints. So when you can’t have it all, date is another way to prioritize when buying for an art collection.
The work we are considering is dated 1876, right after his most famous trip west, this is a great date!
Step 4: Size
As a general rule, larger works are valued more than smaller works. What is considered big or small depends on each artist. For post-war abstract artists canvases at 40” x 60” can be considered mid sized or even small.
Historic art from the 19th century was painted on a much smaller scale. In Canadian Fine art from that period it is rare to find paintings larger than 36” x 48” and anything over 17” x 25” is considered big.
Typically an artist like Verner work ranges from 14” x 20” to 20” x 30”. Although the artist was known to do some larger canvases. The National Gallery of Canada is home to what is considered Verner’s Chef d’Oeuvre, The Upper Ottawa, 1882, which measures nearly 6 feet wide.
A painting like Encampment, 14” x 27”, would be considered a mid to large painting for the artist.
Step 5: Condition
With historic art you are dealing with objects that are upwards of 150 years old. When buying for an art collection, it is very rare to find something in pristine condition with no restoration. So when considering the condition of the work, I’m not so concerned if the work has had restoration. My concern is how it was done and to what extent.
The rule of thumb is less is more. First, I’m looking to see that inpainting (paint added by a restorer) is minimal. Next, I’m looking for signs that the canvas might need further restoration. Signs could include loose or slack canvas, pronounced craclure on paint surface, surface abrasions and paint discolouration. When I’m not sure, I get an official condition report from a professional restorer.
This painting was one of the very very rare cases where the painting had almost no restoration. The painting was on its original stretchers and was not relined. Most surprisingly, there were no signs of inpainting on the surface of the work.
One issue I noticed, when viewing the painting at the auction house, was that the blue of the sky looked somewhat yellowed. The yellowing was due to the unavoidable build up of dust and dirt that occurs over time. This can be resolved, without too much hassle, by taking the work to a restorer and having the work cleaned.
Overall this work was in incredible condition. What is more, by making a small investment to have the work professionally cleaned there was an opportunity to add value to painting.
As part of the collection management process, I made sure to save all invoices and condition reports done by the restorer in our collection files. This kind of documentation will add value when my client chooses to sell or donate the work.
Step 6: Provenance
The provenance of a painting is anything that can trace the history of the physical painting. This information helps to prove that the painting is authentic. An ideal provenance traces the sale history of a painting from its current owner back to the artist. Provenance can be labels from important galleries, an exhibition record or reproduction in an important book.
In Canadian Art it’s usual to see works with limited provenances. The art trade of Canadian art was only really established in the 1930’s and before that people owning Canadian paintings didn’t think to keep invoices or other documentation.
A painting with a limited provenance is not a deterrent for me as an art advisor. Having said that a good provenance does add value to the painting.
The Verner being considered does not have provenance that would add to the paintings value.
Step 6: Price
Ok, so hopefully now you share my enthusiasm for this wonderful painting by Verner! Now it is time to consider price.
Most clients build a collection out of a creative impulse, not as a way to make money. But if you are going to buy Canadian Fine Art, it requires a big investment. As part of my evaluation process, I am looking to find works that I believe will maintain their value over time.
To evaluate the offer price of a work, I look at the auction results for similar paintings by the artist. Going through the records I found four auction results between 2003 and 2015 that were similar to the Verner up for consideration. With the information I find, I create a spreadsheet:
Date of Sale
30,000 – 40,000
25,000 – 30,000
80,000 – 120,000
lot not sold
40,000 – 50,000
Ojibway Indian Encampment
10,000 – 15,000
Indians Tending Birchbark Canoes
15,000 – 20,000
The first row represents the painting I am considering as a purchase for my client’s collection. The last two columns show the price estimate and the realised price. The price estimate is given by the auction before the sale. The realised price is how much the painting sells for (including the buyer’s premium or the fee paid to the auction house).
Most recently, I see that in 2015 a similar painting Lot 54 sold for $94,400, three times its original estimate. For three of the sales the realised price went above the high estimate. Which suggests that the value of this kind of subject is growing.
There is one outlier to this trend, in 2008 the painting did not sell. There are a lot of reasons a painting won’t sell at auction (including bad luck). I did some digging into my auction records and found out that this same painting was offered as lot 225 and sold at auction in 1988 for $60,500. My hunch is that this painting may have failed to sell because the estimate was too high (and scared off potential buyers).
Given the fairly consistent growth in price, I anticipate the work will sell above its $30,000-$40,000 estimate. It is not clear if the painting will match the 2015 price given the failed sale of 2008.
To get a sense of how high the price could go, I look at the overall top auction sale prices for oil paintings by Verner. His top auction record for an oil painting is $188,000 in 2015 for a painting called Indians Shooting the Rapids (lot 138), sold by Heffel. This is a unique sale. The subject of the painting is very rare and is a sought after scene showing a group canoeing down the rapids. More typically the top end of Verner’s market seems to fall between $40,000 and $70,000.
Buying at auction
Because we felt the subject, size, date and condition were all exceptional we decided to proceed with the purchase.
When buying at auction, I register as the bidder. My client emails the auction house their personal and billing information and authorises me to bid on their behalf.
With all of the price information, my client and I decide on a maximum bid before the auction. The night of the auction I’m not making any new decisions. We have a clear plan of action and we don’t let the excitement of the night sway our emotions.
I’m pleased to say that on this occasion we successfully purchased the painting Evening encampment by Frederick Verner for $66,000.
May is an exciting month for Canadian Art! At the end of the month is spring auction week in Toronto! Several of the top Canadian auction houses will be hosting live auctions of Canadian fine art. Live auction sales happening the week of May 27 in Toronto include: Waddington’s Live Auction, Consignor Live Auction and Heffel Live Auction.
As an art advisor, I look forward to going through the auction catalogues from the different auction houses to see what great art will be up for sale.
About a week before, they open their doors to the public showcasing the work that will go up for auction. Going around to the different previews feels a bit like a spring Art Toronto. I love going to these previews because you get to see a lot of amazing Canadian art that isn’t on display in the museums. It’s a great way to get to know artists outside the regular cannon.
A Review of Available Art at Auction
As an art consultant my main area of research is early Canadian Art. As I walk around the auction preview, I’m always looking for good examples of 19th and early 20th century painting. But there is always something from the Post-War section that catches my eye!
In these preliminary visits I’m not thinking about price or provenance, I’m engaging with the work on an aesthetic level and deciding what is worth more consideration.
Great brushwork by Laura Muntz
One piece I’m particularly excited to see this year is a lovely portrait, Lady in White, by Laura Muntz, up for sale atWaddinton’s Auction House. Muntz is considered part of the Canadian Impressionist movement. I would nuance that and describe her as a Tonalist and place her with artists like Andres Zorn, John Singer Sarger or Cecilia Beaux. Like these artists Muntz is showy with her brushwork.
The portrait on view is a great example of this. There is an intriguing debate in the catalogue about the name of the sitter. Apparently the work was sold to the last owners as an official portrait of a Mrs. Reid. But the auction house argues that there is evidence in a book by the renowned scholar Joan Murray that the portrait was actually a former roommate of the artist.
In my own research I came across a secound painting of a woman in the same dress, called ‘Woman Reading’. This would suggest the later story is true as it would be odd that the painter would supply the dress for a formal portrait.
More importantly the repetition of the dress tells us something about the artists focus. This isn’t a portrait this is a fabric study. The dress of the sitter is a playground for the artist to make subtle temperature shifts and bold brush strokes! She’s showing off her technique! I couldn’t help but recall the beautiful fabric studies of Leonardo di Vinci.
Group of Seven and Helen Galloway McNicoll
Another top pick isGirl in the Field by Helen Galloway McNicoll on view at Heffel Fine Art Auction House. McNicoll is a turn of the century artist who is classified as part of the Canadian impressionist group. Like the other artist she studied in Europe and her work explores colour and brushwork.
She paints women and children outdoors and it would be easy to group her with other ‘women artists’ like Berthe Morisot who painted a similar subject. I believe McNicoll would have wanted us to look beyond subject. I think she painted women and kids because that’s what was respectable for a woman of her time to paint. But I’m going to be bold and argue that she wasn’t really thinking about the kids.
Seeing her work I couldn’t help but think about her in terms of the Group of Seven. Their subject is Northern Ontario but that’s not what the work is about. It’s all about style and self expression.
McNicoll is a bold painter. She plays a lot with strong contrasts of light and dark and cool and warm. In this painting she has her main subject in a cool shadow. Our eye is drawn to the girls face which matches the tree in tone but is set apart with it’s orange hue (she’s playing with the blue-orange complementary). The larger shadow shape sits on the bright sunlit background. Her master stroke is the girls white headscarf. Although it sits within the large shadow it is about half a step lighter than anything else. It breaks the girl from the tree so that we can read her silhouette more clearly.
A New Discovery, Frederick Nicholas Loveroff
Visiting the auction preview at Consignor Canadian Fine Arts, I was introduced to the work of Frederick Nicholas Loveroff. I was quite taken by this lovely landscape calledFarm Scene.
A contemporary of the Group of Seven, Loveroff was a Western Canadian artist with family roots in Russia. His paint handling and colour is similar to the Group of Seven artists but his composition is completely different.
Look how high the horizon line is! Two-thirds of the canvas is white snow! It’s bold and radically different to the Group of Seven approach that favoured a silhouette composition. Artists like Tom Thomson are best known for works like the iconic Jack Pine where the design of the work centers on a dark foreground set on a light background.
What’s so interesting about comparing these two works is that we can see how the landscape has guided the artists design choices. The prairies are defined by a sense that you can see the flat landscape for miles. By keeping the horizon high Loveroff gives his painting that expansive feel of the prairies. A region like Algonquin (where the Group of Seven famously painted) is a thick forest set against a large bright body of water. The comparison reminds us how much our environment influences our ideas. A great new discovery for me!
Early Jack Bush
Jumping ahead to post-war abstract art, Heffel has an intriguing Jack Bush titled Red Vision from 1958 on view. I love this piece because it shows us the artists thinking process.
This work represents the period right before he found his groove. In a work like this he is trying to think abstract. Bush was trained as an illustrator and had his own illustration studio. When he first started painting abstract works he would pencil in his shapes before painting them in.
When the American art critic Clement Greenberg saw his work he told him to lose the pencil. This first generation of Abstract Expressionism was all about the automatic process. No planning just make a mark and then respond with another (and another). It seems easy. But it’s really hard to get yourself into a headspace where you are not planning!
I love the red blob because we can see how he massed it in. He probably started with a mark and then scrubbed his brush outwards to build this organic shape. Look at how the outline of the shape is frayed. These imperfect lines carry over into his later work. It gives his minimalist style a sense of energy and a human touch. This work is all about experimentation!
It is so easy to stick to what you already know. I have such admiration for artists like Jack Bush who spent their whole career pushing beyond their comfort zone and redefining their art.
This year’s live auction sessions will be held in Toronto on the following days:
Waddington’s Live Auction: Monday, May 27, 7PM, 275 King Street East, 2nd Floor
Consignor Live Auction: Tuesday, May 28, 7PM, 111 Queens Park
Heffel Live Auction: Wednesday, May 29, 4 PM Post-War & Contemporary Art, 7 PM Canadian Impressionist & Modern Art , Design Exchange, Toronto