Explosive impulses and unpredictable circumstances often collide to create artistic masterpieces, but these factors also arise at the auction house, inspiring record highs and disappointing lows. 

"It's theatre and commerce colliding at auction night," says Linda Rodeck, vice-president of fine art and senior specialist of Canadian art at Waddington's auction house in Toronto.

Whether this season will bring tragedy or comedy is yet to be seen, but Waddington's is already buzzing with anticipation. The highlight of its Canadian fine art auction this spring is Lake Superior Painting X by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris. The painting is estimated to fetch between $2.5 and $3.5 million.

If it surpasses $3.5 million at auction (including the auction house premium), Lake Superior Painting X will set a new record for a Harris work — and for good reason, too. The painting has never been on the market before. It changed hands from the Harris family to the present owner, but the auction marks the first time the painting is available to be bought, or seen, by the public. 

Lake Superior Painting X could go even further. If it hits a hammer price of at least $4.3 million, factoring in Waddington's 18 per cent fee would push it into a whole different stratosphere, where it will surpass Paul Kane's record-setting Scene in the Northwest as the new highest-selling Canadian work ever at auction,

Past auction records 

Paul Kane's Scene in the Northwest - Portrait of John Henry Lefroy sold for $5.062 million (including premium) in 2002, setting the record for highest price ever paid at auction for a Canadian artwork.

Lawren Harris' The Old Stump, Lake Superior sold for $3.5 million (including premium) at auction in 2009, a record high sales price for the artist.

"It does have this sort of grandeur and presence that you don't get in an 8x10 reproduction of it," says Rodeck.

The painting is considered an iconic Harris: an ethereal landscape with the sun streaming down on the Lake Superior shore. It's this subject matter that gives the work a personal connection to Harris. Tom Thompson had Algonquin Park, J.E.H. MacDonald had Algoma and A.Y. Jackson had the lower St. Lawrence, but Harris focused on Lake Superior. 

"Lake Superior is his spot," according to Rodeck. "This is where he gets kicked into creative high gear." 

Robert Heffel, vice-president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, also has a Harris painting of Lake Superior up for auction this spring. Though smaller in size and estimated to sell for $500,000 to $700,000, Lake Superior LXI is still a "wonderful, dramatic, quintessential Lawren Harris," Heffel says.

Though the artist has always been a well-known name in Canada, his work is also starting to pick up international recognition. For instance, comedian Steve Martin is co-curating a travelling exhibit of Harris' work slated to begin at the Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles in fall 2015 before eventually making its way to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. 

Both Rodeck and Heffel predict that their respective spring auctions will draw mostly Canadian collectors. But they also acknowledge that international exposure, like Martin's exhibition, will have a positive effect on Canadian art as a whole and help shine a light on lesser known Canadian artists.

Post-war art making gains

One such group is Painters Eleven, the association of Canadian abstract artists — largely from Ontario — who emerged in the post-war era. Works by Painters Eleven artist Jack Bush, as well as post-war Montreal painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, are among the lots for sale at Heffel

Works by these abstract artists are still undervalued on the worldwide market, but they have always been sought after and interest is rising, Heffel says.

Upcoming Canadian art auctions

  • Consignor - May 21-29 (online)
  • Waddington's - May 26 (in Toronto)
  • Heffel - May 28 (in Vancouver)

Painters Eleven pieces stand in stark contrast to the work of the iconic Group of Seven: the former was founded in opposition to the popularity of traditional Canadian landscapes made famous by the latter. 

But the growing success of these Canadian abstract artists at auction is not so different than that experienced by their predecessors, says Rob Cowley, president of Consignor Canadian Fine Art.

"We've really witnessed that change where you do have those works by Riopelle, Jack Bush and other members of Painters Eleven and those associations that are parallel, essentially, with those landscape works," says Cowley, who is offering several paintings by artists such as Bush and Harold Town this spring.

For art collectors, the slowly growing popularity for Painters Eleven pieces means artworks can still be relatively affordable. Specialists also don't see this increasing interest dampening the success of Group of Seven offerings at auction any time soon. 

"It's still on, what we would say, a bit of a roll," says Waddington's Rodeck.

Regardless, no matter how much trends change and values rise or fall, the bottom line for selling art is quality, she added.

"Like in any collecting area, the paintings have to be good."