A Sotheby's Canadian art auction of painters, including works by Jean Paul Lemieux, Alex Colville and Jack Bush, fetched more than $7.8 million Monday evening, against pre-sale estimates as low as $4.7 million, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The Lemieux canvas Country Club, which had attracted much pre-sale interest during the Sotheby’s preview at the Arsenal in Montreal, surpassed expectations when it was sold for $1,095,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $400,000 to $600,000.

Prices include the auction house commission.

The Quebec artist was a highlight of the fall season, with Lemieux's iconic canvas Nineteen Ten Remembered fetching $2.34 million and setting a new record for the sale of a Canadian post-war artwork at rival auctioneer Heffel's sale on Thursday.

Another highlight was the smash sale of a rare James Wilson Morrice canvas, entitled Evening Stroll, Venice, which soared past its pre-sale estimate of $250,000 to $350,000 when it sold for $1,497,500.

Ash Prakash bought the Morrice piece along with three other works. The Toronto collector says the strength of the art market is a global phenmenon.

"As the prices escalate, it draws the attention of people. It was always there, but it was gradual. Now perhaps [it’s] probably more erratic and rather radical," Prakash told CBC News. 

'Volley of competitive bidding'

Bidders in the standing-room-only audience paid $370,500 for Colville's 1952 work Woman, Jockey and Horse, and $290,000 for Colville's Cattle Show, completed in 1955.

Woman, Jockey and Horse had a pre-auction estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. It features a jockey captured in an exchange with a mysterious woman. Cattle Show had a pre-sale estimate of $250,000 to $350,000.

"The offering of Painters Eleven paintings set off a volley of competitive bidding with a trio of works by Jack Bush, Jock Macdonald and Kazuo Nakamura," Sotheby's said in a release.

All beat their pre-sale estimates, with a new record set for Nakamura when his Core Waves No.3 sold for $94,500.

Art is a safe investment, if people know what they're doing, because top-notch artwork will command high prices, according to Calgary art dealer Rod Green, who purchased the 1955 Paul-Émile Borduas abstract canvas Blancs Métaux for $416,500.

"Quality work did well through all the crap we’ve had through the last 35 years, and I’ve been involved for 35 years," Green said.

Overall, the auction featured almost 190 lots and set 15 new records.

Outside the ROM, however, several dozen protesters set up an information picket in support of art handlers for Sotheby's New York who have been without a contract and locked out since September.

With files from The Canadian Press