Conservative estimates for beloved Canadian artists at spring auctions

Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, David Milne and other familiar artists will be part of this year's spring fine art auctions as usual, but conservative pre-sale estimates and a mood of cautious optimism prevail as financial worries continue to weigh on people's thoughts.
The oddly spelled Emarald Lake, by auction favourite and Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, is a highlight of the Sotheby's Canada sale, in association with Ritchies. ((Sotheby's))

Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, David Milne and other familiar artists will be part of this year's spring fine art auctions as usual, but conservative pre-sale estimates and a mood of cautious optimism prevail as financial worries continue to weigh on people's thoughts.

The recent run of international auctions "were smaller than they were a year ago … probably because everybody has paused [due to] the financial situation. There's not as much compulsion to throw everything into the market," Sotheby's Canada president David Silcox told CBC News in a recent interview.

"We're being quite modest [this time around]. I think it's the right strategy for the time because you can't force people to pay more if they think it's too much."

Artwork from Canada's "usual suspects," including Harris, Carr, A.Y. Jackson, Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, Jean Paul Lemieux, Harold Town and Kathleen Moir Morris, are among the highlights of the Sotheby's Canada sale, being held in Toronto in conjunction with Ritchies Auctioneers on May 25.

The fibrework Segovia's Gypsy by Aiko Suzuki was one of the lots that piqued the interest of Sotheby's Canada president David Silcox. ((Sotheby's))
"There's quite a bit of excitement about a number of them," as well as about contemporary and living artists, Silcox said.

Still, sometimes a particular lot can stand out from the rest. For Silcox, one that sparked his attention this year was a fibre work by the late Aiko Suzuki, the textile artist and sister of CBC broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki.

"It's never been at auction before," Silcox said of the yarn-and-wood sculpture Segovia's Gypsy (estimated to sell for between $6,000 and $9,000).

"It's a beautiful piece," he added, pointing out that textile works are a bit more rare at auctions.

Patriotic pop art from Pachter

Patriotism, playfulness and cachet are among the factors attracting interest to one of the featured lots at Toronto auction house Joyner-Waddington. Buzz has been building over Charlie Pachter's The Painted Flag, the large canvas — featured on Joyner's spring catalogue — hailing from his celebrated, early 1980s flag series. It's estimated to sell for between $12,000 and $15,000.

Joyner Waddington officials have fielded much interest in Charlie Pachter's 1981 canvas The Painted Flag. ((Joyner Waddington))
Aside from being the largest of these Pachter works to be offered at auction and the first in about a decade, The Painted Flag canvas comes with a pedigree, according to Rob Cowley, Joyner-Waddington's vice-president and chief auctioneer.

Canvases from the initial series belong to a host of important private and public collections, including at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Toronto at the Stock Exchange and First Canadian Place, at Canadian embassies in Washington and Berlin and as part of the personal art collections of several former prime ministers.

"[Pachter's] really been enjoying tremendous success of late, so we're really excited to have such an important work by him," Cowley said. "In a way, it's pop art for Canada. He uses iconic images: the flag, the moose, the Queen."

Amid the current economic climate, Joyner is also testing out a smaller, more focused auction this season, with a single live session on May 26 and a second, smaller one offering lower-estimate works (for the most part below $3,000) for sale online from May 27 to June 4.

"When we go through periods like this, when things are a bit softer, the most important thing is trying to offer the highest quality work you can and at the same time applying estimates and reserves that are realistic and conservative," Cowley said.

"We continue to go forward with the same cautious optimism that we did even last season, before things had changed," he added.

"The age-old adage within the industry is that the quality works, the works that collectors cannot live without, will always sell, no matter the market."

Heffel's offers prime works

Wind in the Tree Tops is a rare, mature period Emily Carr oil-on-canvas, circa 1935-1936.
The team at Heffel Fine Art Auction House says it has nabbed several top-shelf, blue chip artworks for its upcoming sale — being held a bit later than usual on June 17 so as to debut in the recently opened Vancouver Convention Centre.

Among the highlights of the West Coast sale are a pair of prominent works by Canadian icons: the mature period Emily Carr painting Wind in the Tree Tops, a rare oil-on-canvas piece (estimated to sell for between $900,000 and $1.2 million) and the Jean-Paul Riopelle painting Jouet, a valuable offering from his highly sought after early 1950s drip period (estimated to sell for between $1 million and $1.5 million).

"There are a lot of tremendous-quality paintings. There are a lot of great quality paintings in the $10,000 to $20,000 range as well," said Robert Heffel, who heads up the Vancouver-based company with his brother David.

"We feel that it's a good opportunity for collectors to acquire really great pieces of art. There was a period there, in 2007, when the market was so strong that some of the very serious collectors felt almost left out because the prices were so high. Now they have an opportunity to buy paintings at more normalized values," he said.

"It's still an active market. Perhaps the values are not what we saw in 2007, but we'll see," Heffel said, adding that the size of his spring sale is comparable to what it has been for the last few years.
Jouet, a Jean-Paul Riopelle painting, hails from the Quebec artist's much sought-after drip period of the early 1950s. ((Heffel Fine Art Auction House) )