Montreal school board's artworks to fetch up to $1.8M

A trove of Canadian art belonging to a Montreal school board, including pieces by Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson and landscape artist Maurice Cullen, is expected to sell for up to $1.8 million at auction this spring.

Works by artists A.Y. Jackson, Maurice Cullen, Anne Savage offered

A trove of Canadian art belonging to a Montreal school board is expected to sell for up to $1.8 million at auction this spring.

Heffel Fine Art Auction House revealed on Tuesday some details of the 53 artworks from the English Montreal School Board set for its spring sale in Vancouver this spring.

The school board's collection spans work by artists like Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson, landscape artist Maurice Cullen and his artist stepson Robert Pilot, as well as Anne Savage.

Beginning the 1930s, it was common for parents, alumni and artists themselves to recognize schools with gifts of art, according to the PSBGM Cultural Heritage Foundation, a non-profit group entrusted with care of the collection.

Later, in the 1960s, Savage — a well-regarded painter and art teacher at Montreal's Baron Byng High School — helped augment the collection for the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal (PSBGM). As curator of the collection, she bolstered the trove by acquiring key works and donating some of her own pieces as well. 

As the artworks gained value over the years, however, so has the cost of insuring them. The different pieces have been scattered around, on display in different schools and at the school board office.

The artworks on offer "are really a part of Montreal history," Tania Poggione, director of the Heffel Montreal office, told CBC News on Tuesday.

With so many of the donated works depicting classic scenes from around Quebec and across the country, "they're great examples of Canadian landscapes."

The pieces being handled by Heffel are estimated to sell for between $1.3 million and $1.8 million. Notable lots headed for the auction block include:

  • A Quebec Village/Winter, St-Fidèle by A.Y. Jackson, estimated to sell for $500,000-$700,000.
  • Large murals by Robert Pilot, such as Early Explorers and Indian Fur Traders, as well as his work Corner of Sherbrooke and Peel Streets. Each is expected to sell for $100,000-$150,000.
  • Northern Lake/Trees in the Wind (verso) by Anne Savage, estimated to sell for $70,000-$90,000.
  • North River Near Ste-Margarets by Maurice Cullen, estimated to sell for $10,000-$15,000.

"With virtually no acquisitions costs, these donations have appreciated exponentially over time and will now be translated into an important win for our children and for our community," foundation curator Angelo Komatsoulis said in a statement.

The sales proceeds from the school board's art will fund post-secondary scholarships for graduates.

"It's an honour to be part of a noble mandate like that. We’re involved in several [similar] cases — they vary — but whenever [auction] sale proceeds go to a charity, it’s always interesting to be part of that. It adds another level to the sale, kind of a human factor," Poggione said.

Some unhappy with sale

In December, news of the sale sparked controversy in Montreal, with some critics opposing the decision to auction a portion of the collection.

"To simply scatter it to the four winds...is a scandal, frankly," school board commissioner Julien Feldman said at the time.

Similar decisions to sell artwork donated to schools have sparked legal battles in the U.S.; for instance cash-strapped Fisk University's attempt to generate funds by selling a stake in its collection of art donated by Georgia O'Keeffe.

In this case, however, there shouldn't be any legal issues, Poggione said. 

"The board made their decision. They respected all the procedures," she said. "It’s all pretty clear."

Heffel will tour the school board's artworks to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, beginning in April.

The auction house will then offer 32 of the higher-valued pieces as part of its live spring sale in Vancouver on May 15. A further 21 pieces will be sold as part of a specialty Heffel online auction,