Storied Canadian artworks to cross auction block

A mature period Emily Carr canvas, a beach-set Jean Paul Lemieux, coveted mountain sketches by Lawren Harris and a notable Jack Bush work are among the top lots set for sale during the Canadian spring auction season.

Highlights from Emily Carr, Group of Seven, Jean Paul Lemieux, Painters Eleven

A mature period Emily Carr canvas, a beach-set Jean Paul Lemieux, coveted mountain sketches by Lawren Harris and a notable Jack Bush work are among the top lots set for sale during the Canadian spring auction season.

Many offerings come with intriguing backstories from over the years. Each piece of art bears a tale that relates to the artwork itself or to the history of Canadian art, Robert Heffel, vice-president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, told CBC News.

"But they also have their own special history that relates to the ownership or the provenance of the object. That forms part of the specialness of dealing with art," he said.

"It's like that movie The Red Violin," he continued. "It just passes through owner by owner, through history. That's very much the case with paintings."

Grand slam artwork

The Franklin Carmichael canvas Lone Lake, for instance, could be considered a grand slam in terms of its personal story and historical significance, says Rob Cowley, vice-president of Joyner Canadian Fine Art.

Joyner's May 25 sale will be the first time this larger-sized watercolour landscape has ever appeared at auction. Once part of Carmichael's estate, the visually appealing work (estimated to sell for upwards of $300,000) has remained with the same family for about 80 years.

'It's hard to find anything that's not a draw with regard to this painting'—Rob Cowley on Lone Lake

When valuing a piece of art, Cowley said he considers 10-12 factors ranging from subject to history.

"This painting essentially hit off on every single factor, in terms of ownership and in terms of exhibition history, as well," he told CBC News.

Lone Lake has been included in a variety of shows both in Canada and internationally, from the 1930s through 2010. Carmichael, a Group of Seven artist, was celebrated for capturing the region — in this case, one specific lake in the La Cloche Range near Sudbury, Ont. In the 1970s, the real Lone Lake was renamed Carmichael Lake in his honour.

Lone Lake, near Sudbury, Ont., was renamed Carmichael Lake to honour Group of Seven member Franklin Carmichael, known for depicting the region. (Courtesy Jim and Sue Waddington/Joyner)

"It's almost like the cherry on top," Cowley said. "It's hard to find anything that's not a draw with regard to this painting."

Joyner's lots include several pieces by noted Ontario regionalist Greg Curnoe. One is the coloured serigraf on plexiglass Mariposa T.T. (estimate: $20,000-$30,000). It reflects both his highly popular and frequent depictions of his beloved hand-built bicycles, but also serves as a sombre reminder of the avid cyclist's horrible death during a group ride in 1992.

In addition to this work for which the artist is commonly known, a more atypical piece is also crossing the block at Joyner. Curnoe's Dessin Anime (estimate: $25,000-$30,000), a colourful, large-scale graphic piece that harkens to the artist's childhood love of cartoons, is notable for being part of a text-based trilogy.

Auction favourite Lawren Harris

Natural scenes by Group of Seven co-founder Harris are a perennial favourite at auction, with all three major houses including his works among their lots. Joyner's Harris highlight, Mountain Sketch VII (estimate: $300,000-$400,000), is important because of its suggestion of the oncoming transition period for the artist.

"It really does speak to Harris' shift to abstraction," Cowley said.

Similarly, Sotheby's Canada has its own Harris mountain sketch on the slate for its May 24th sale in Toronto. "He's most people's favourite member of the Group [of Seven]," said Linda Rodeck, vice-president of Sotheby's Canada.

In Mountain Sketch XCI (Mountain on the Athabasca River), the artist captures a subject  he often depicted — the Rocky Mountains — but this work shows how he was "paring down," Rodeck said. 

Sotheby's Harris sketch (estimate: $400,000-$600,000), A.J. Casson's October - Lake Superior (estimate: $30,000-$50,000) and Arthur Lismer's Twisted Pine, Georgian Bay (estimate: $60,000-$80,000) were unearthed from a private collection in Edmonton. It quickly emerged that the trio of paintings had excellent provenance: the current owner's late father had bought the Harris from the artist's second wife, Beth.

"Every once in a while you get a phone call out of the blue," Rodeck said. "That was my favourite call of the week."

Spotlight on lesser-known artists

Along with offering works by Canadian art icons, however, she emphasized the importance of bringing newer and lesser known artists into the auction sphere. "The mission that we're on... is to take our buyers beyond birch trees in the snow," Rodeck said.

A pair of prominent examples are depicted on the front and back covers of Sotheby's spring auction catalogue.

'Photography hasn't been thoroughly explored in the auctions'—Linda Rodeck, Sotheby's Canada

Barbara Anne Astman's commanding colour print Untitled, From the Red Series (estimate: $25,000-$35,000) made a strong impression on Sotheby's staffers.

"Photography hasn't been thoroughly explored in the auctions," Rodeck said, especially given "Toronto's appetite for photography," as seen by the city’s ever-popular Contact Photography Festival and the fact that an acclaimed international trove like the Black Star Collection now lives at Ryerson University

Sotheby's Canada also put Fritz Brandtner's Interior (estimate: $15,000-$25,000) front and centre on its spring catalogue and the move seems to have paid off, with impressed collectors requesting more information about the German-Canadian artist, who died in 1969, she said.

Buyers have also been buzzing over work by more contemporary artists such as Jack Bush, notably his canvas Glide (estimate: $80,000-$120,000), and over art by other members of the Painters Eleven. "It's proof that Canadian art is just as good" and can hold its own against all art, Rodeck concluded. 

Carr in the spotlight

For Heffel, which kicks off the season with its May 17 sale in Vancouver, historically noteworthy and museum-quality pieces are the standouts, with a prime Emily Carr canvas in the spotlight.

Heffel boasts a number of fine Carr paintings this spring, the most important of which is Eagle Totem (estimate: $600,000 to $800,000), "a mature period Emily Carr oil-on-canvas on First Nations subject matter — one of the rarest treasures in Canadian art," said Robert Heffel.


Spring 2012 Canadian art auctions:

Heffel Fine Art Auction House - May 17, Vancouver.

Sotheby's Canada - May 24, Toronto.

Joyner Canadian Fine Art - May 25, Toronto.

Though her dramatic paintings on paper turn up regularly at auction, Eagle Totem — which she painted around 1930, about the time she associated with peers such as the Group of Seven and Georgia O'Keeffe —  is one of the few remaining canvas works from this key period still held in private hands.

Other notable Heffel offerings include the Carr watercolour War Canoes, Alert Bay (estimate: $300,000-$500,000), the repatriated Harris sketch Lake Superior (estimate: $400,000-$600,000), "eighth" Group of Seven member Edwin Holgate's Great Bug Pond, Cache River (estimate: $600,000-$800,000) and Jean Paul Lemieux's Le plage américaine (estimate: $500,000-$700,000) — a follow-up to the auctioneer's historic fall sale of the Quebec artist's nostalgic Nineteen Ten Remembered

When quality, rarity, historical importance and other key factors intersect in one artwork, the result can be a record-setting, headline-grabbing price achieved at auction — as has been the case in New York this month with prominent sales of Edvard Munch's The Scream, Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow and Jeff Wall's Dead Troops Talk

High-profile sales like those "certainly add a level of excitement to the auction business" and underline the possibilities at auctions, says Joyner's Cowley.

"It's a highlight for the [auction] industry, but also promotes the art industry as a whole," he said.

"Artists become part of the everyday dialogue."