When artworks fetch in the thousands, or even millions, of dollars at auction, the general public is sometimes left bewildered. Just what makes one piece of art worth more than another?

While supply and demand — along with the artist's fame or notoriety — must be taken into question, many times it's the back story, the painting’s history or the context surrounding an artwork that can help tease buyers into bidding wars.


An artist's reputation along with an artwork's provenance, historical context and rarity are among the factors that figure into the price it can achieve at auction. An intriguing back story can also help. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

We asked the leaders of three major Canadian auction houses to choose a handful of works from their vast fall offerings and explain why each of these pieces should capture our attention.

"We're talking about great art but we're also talking about history," Robert Heffel, vice-president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, told CBC News.

"It's our cultural history and [these artworks] form part of our historical record, our vocabulary, our visual history...When you put the paintings into context of when they were painted and with their historical records, each in its own way is documenting the history of Canada."

Scroll through the photo gallery above for details on each artwork. Note the pieces and their respective pre-sale estimates in the list below.

Heffel Fine Canadian Art and Canadian Post-War & Contemporary Art

Fall auction: Nov. 22, 2012

Heffel vice-president Robert Heffel's picks:

  1. Lawren Harris, Hurdy Gurdy (est. $400,000-$600,000)
  2. William Kurelek, King of the Mountain (est. $250,000-$350,000)
  3. A.Y. Jackson, Radium Mine (est. $200,000-$300,000)
  4. Emily Carr, Frivolous September - Up the Gorge (Blue Sky and Forest) ($200,000-$250,000)
  5. Jack Bush, Blue Bird (est. $80,000-$100,000)

Heffel's highest-valued lots: Hurdy Gurdy by Lawren Harris and Skidegate by Emily Carr (each est. $400,000-$600,000)

Joyner Canadian Fine Art

Fall auction: Nov. 26, 2012

Joyner vice-president Rob Cowley's picks:

  1. Tom Thomson, River Scene (est. $15,000-$20,000)
  2. Paul-Émile Borduas, Chatterie (est. $150,000-$200,000)
  3. William Ronald, Memories, New York, 1959 (est. $40,000-$60,000)
  4. William Kurelek, Yukon Trappers’ Stop (Big Lonely Series) (est. $60,000-$80,000)
  5. Greg Curnoe, Silva Disc Wheel (est. $12,000-$15,000)

Joyner's highest-valued lot: Chatterie by Paul-Émile Borduas (est. $150,000-$200,000).

Sotheby's Important Canadian Art

Fall auction: Nov. 27, 2012

Sotheby's Canada president David Silcox's picks:

  1. Lawren Harris, Arctic Sketch XXII (est. $400,000-$600,000)
  2. David Milne, Red Pool, Temagami, 1929 (est. $125,000-$175,000)
  3. Emily Carr, Woman Knitting - Repose #3 (est. $125,000-$175,000)
  4. Mark Aurèle Fortin, View of Montreal from St. Helen’s Island (est. $400,000-$600,000)
  5. General Idea, Atomic Blast, 1984 (est. $20,000-$30,000)
  6. Harold Town, Picture for Heather #1 (est. $25,000-$35,000)

Sotheby's Canada's highest-valued lot: Street in Barrie, Ont. by Lawren Harris (est. $900,000-$1.2 million)