Why Lawren Harris's Algoma sketch is worth your house (or more)

It's expected the Lawren Harris sketch Algoma (Algoma Sketch 48) will sell for $400,000 to $600,000 at auction today in Toronto — comparable to the average price of a house in Canada. But what makes one painting worth millions and another destined for a garage sale?

'Canadians depicting land in a style that is distinctly Canadian': art specialist on Group of Seven

Lawren Harris's oil on panel Algoma (Algoma Sketch 48) is expected to sell for upwards of $400,000 at auction. What makes one painting worth so much and another destined for the garage sale? (Consignor Fine Art Auctions)

It's expected the Lawren Harris sketch Algoma (Algoma Sketch 48) will sell for $400,000 to $600,000 at auction today in Toronto — comparable to the average price of a house in Canada

To judge the quality of a diamond, we famously defer to the "five Cs," but how do you gauge the value of something as subjective as artwork? What makes one painting you love worth millions and another destined for a garage sale? 

It's not mere speculation: experts consider a variety of factors to determine the value of that picturesque pastoral or colour-blocked canvas.

Art specialist Rob Cowley, president of Consignor Canadian Fine Art, outlines what makes Algoma an artwork to snatch up.

1. Who is the artist?

Not only is the basic identity of an artist important, but also his or her ability and importance within the history of art, within an artistic movement and within a country, Cowley said. 

In the case of Algoma, it's a work by Harris: one of Canada's most respected artists, a figure central to and who helped finance one of Canada's most important artistic collectives — the Group of Seven — and a champion of peers such as Emily Carr.

The First World War was a defining moment in Canadian history, but "as we were moving away from mother countries, the visual arts were really last. We were stuck in the European style," Cowley said. 

"The Group [of Seven] was a reaction to that: creating an identity" and breaking away from traditions, he noted.

They were "Canadians depicting land in a style that is distinctly Canadian."

2. Subject matter

The Group of Seven created many preparatory oil sketches [paintings hastily created on-site to capture light and surroundings], but only a small percentage became signature works — not all made it to canvases, Cowley said. 

Dating from 1919 or 1920, Algoma subsequently inspired at least four Harris canvases, including one (Island, MacCallum Lake) in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. 

The region depicted was important for both Harris and the group because their first trip to the northeastern Ontario area marked a welcome reunion following a dark period in which the associates were separated during the First World War and also lost their talented colleague Tom Thomson. 

This fruitful time marked the beginning of their official association as the Group of Seven, Cowley noted.

Living and travelling in a repurposed train boxcar on that trip, they were "not only painting and creating work in this paradise," but also "spending their time discussing and debating art, talking about culture and really getting to the crux of so much of what the Group of Seven was based on."

3. Freshness to the market

Understandably, rarity can make for a hot commodity in the art world: for instance, if a piece — verified as authentic — has never appeared in exhibition, never been included in books and/or hasn't been seen in decades. 

With Algoma, this is indeed the case. The painting was purchased from the Mellors-Laing art gallery in Toronto around 1940 and then remained in one Canadian family's private collection (with a detour to Australia for the past 30 years).

4. Condition 

Whether an artwork has been treated or cleaned in any way makes a difference, Cowley said. 

5. What's in fashion

Actor-comedian Steve Martin, who co-curated The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, poses at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in October. (Casey Curry/Associated Press)

Some artists are always in fashion: think Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol. In Canada, Harris has been an art world rock star for decades. "When you go back looking at auctions starting in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, Lawren Harris was central in those sales, even then," Cowley said. 

"The first [Canadian] artist to sell for $1 million in the first 15 years" was Harris, he added. 

The perennial favourite had boffo numbers at last week's Heffel auction in Vancouver and also set a record last fall with a $4.6-million (including premiums) sale in Toronto. Many suspect he is getting a boost from the recent Steve Martin-curated exhibit in the U.S. and headed for Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) later this summer.

Laurentian Landscape, a painting by Lawren Harris, exceeded its estimate and sold for $2.2 million at the Heffel spring auction in Vancouver earlier this month. (Handout Heffel Fine Art Auction/Canadian Press)

"It's very Canadian that we take pride in our figures when they are recognized and beloved outside of our borders," Cowley said. 

"We really are seeing how audiences outside of our borders are captured by [the Group of Seven]... seeing a voice from another country depicting the land of their country in a distinctive style."

Algoma (Algoma Sketch 48) will be sold at Consigner Canadian Fine Art's inaugural live auction of important Canadian art Tuesday evening in Toronto. Other highlights set to cross the block include two additional Harris paintings (House, Toronto and Shacks), an early Group of Seven sketch by Frank Johnston, a childhood swimming scene from William Kurelek and a 1962 canvas by Jean Paul Riopelle.