Erratic Auction Buying Accents a Generally Strong Market

Fall Canadian Art Auctions Review

Kathleen Morris Awaiting The Train Berthierville Quebec

Galerie Walter Klinkhoff purchased the important Kathleen Morris canvas, "Awaiting the Train, Berthierville, Quebec" (24 x 30 inches) for a hammer price of $110,000, a figure that represents a fraction of its value.

Old Master, Impressionist and Modern
Powered by the dearth of available masterworks, an undeniable strength in the market for Old Master, Impressionist and Modern Canadian art was accented by very selective bidding at the auctions this fall. To no surprise, great paintings with favourable estimates, colours, subject matter, and that were not competing against other similar works that could dilute buyer interest, were as sought after as one might expect.

Our recent private sales of the finest works by J.E.H. MacDonald, Emily Carr, Maurice Cullen, A.Y. Jackson and James Wilson Morrice, among others, confirm the overall strength of the market as observed this week. Substance was found in the sale of rare and outstanding paintings such as J.E.H. MacDonald’s important canvas “Wind Clouds” at Sotheby’s and the magnificent Randolph Hewton nude at Joyner Waddington’s. Further demonstrating the strength of the market, a cluster of excellent Arthur Lismer paintings late in Heffel’s sale achieved good results. Lismer is very much the rage these days and in our opinion finally getting his due. However, this success amidst a weakness – in this case oversupply – can only be taken as an exception. The market has narrowed its focus and any obvious reason to be defensive about a work of art (ie. oversupply, high estimates, not of the most popular subject matter…) more often resulted in that work’s failure to generate serious interest.

Paintings by members of the iconic Group of Seven suffered from many problems associated with the auction sale method. While the market for Lismer’s work is hot, on Tuesday at Sotheby’s a large canvas “Ontario Village”, the most important painting by him in this round of auction sales, was victimized by its overly aggressive estimate and crashed unsold. Heffel’s featured a magnificent Franklin Carmichael panel of “Port Coldwell”, which sold for $140,000 before the premium, below both its value and its $150,000 – $250,000 estimate. Unfortunately for the consignor, it was one of three very nice Carmichaels available in sequence and buyers were dispersed.

Some great paintings inexplicably floundered, presenting astute buying opportunities. Heffel’s cover lot, the marvelous Lawren Harris arctic panel “Mountain, Baffin Island North, Arctic Sketch XII”, estimated $700,000 to $900,000 was knocked down unsold at $625,000. Another obvious example was the important Kathleen Morris canvas in Joyner Waddington’s Monday evening sale that we purchased for a hammer price of $110,000, a figure that represents 50 cents on the retail dollar value of the picture. In recent years, lesser Kathleen Morris canvases have sold for between $200,000 and $300,000.

Whereas the market remains exceedingly strong for great paintings by artists of all generations, auctions continue to prove erratic. The week-long oversupply of paintings by Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Paul Peel, David Milne and others that rears its head each auction season should be of critical concern to prospective consignors. It also appears that many speculators and consultants who supported the “middle” of this market and who used to pick up the slack, have shifted their interest to post-war art in the hope of finding lower entry level costs and equally strong returns.

Post-War and Contemporary
Interest in post-war and contemporary art is clearly rising but it is my opinion that hype has drawn many new and inexperienced people into the field. The result is that many buyers remain confused and the bidding was somewhat indiscriminate. Colour, strong lines, expression and impact seemed to breed interest regardless of quality, importance or even, in some cases, the artist. Where there was quality and success, it was particularly rewarding for Galerie Walter Klinkhoff to see sustained interest in great paintings by Sam Borenstein. We sold his large canvas “Ste-Agathe” in the 1960s for under $1000. On Thursday it achieved an auction record price of almost $95,000! We were also delighted that paintings by Molly Lamb Bobak achieved excellent prices, on par with our private sales. “Molly” is Canada’s first official female War Artist and a recipient of the Order of Canada. In our opinion she is one of the great artists of her generation and we are proud to have worked with her closely for over forty years. Paintings by Jean McEwen, another favourite of the gallery, also received similar interest to those we have recently sold.

Knowledgeable buyers still cashed in, notably the purchaser of a tremendous Borduas canvas at Heffel’s. Although it had some in-painting, a very strong and intuitive Marcelle Ferron executed in 1948, the year Borduas’ seminal “Refus Global” formally laid the foundation for the Automatiste movement of which Ferron was a participant, did not see the level of interest one might have anticipated for a painting of that important date. No less a work of art because it lacked the flashy colours fancied by buyers today, it was bought for a relatively competitive price. The auction structure also hampered contemporary art sales. While buyers prepared to concentrate on Borenstein’s “Ste Agathe”, a few lots before it we purchased the master’s less obvious but highly important painting “Old Stove on Clark Street, Montreal” for a valued client at an extraordinary low bid of $10,000.

With a few exceptions, notably Jean-Paul Lemieux, William Kurelek and now Borenstein, the greatest interest remained in abstract or non-objective art. But great post-war paintings by Borduas and his abstract artist-colleagues already appear as scarcely as great Harris and Tom Thomsons. Goodridge Roberts, Molly Lamb Bobak, René Richard, Joe Plaskett and the best figurative artists of the post-war era remain incredibly affordable and represent excellent value. It is perhaps worth more than a footnote that million dollar Alex Colvilles make great 19th century Cornelius Krieghoff paintings look like very shrewd buys, indeed.

The unpredictable nature of the auction sale method continued to manifest itself as a number of great works did not tempt buyers during their 60 seconds on the block. It’s a trend we have observed and remarked at repeatedly over the years. The private sale method offers a risk-free way to sell your works and maximize value.

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  1. Brian Dedora says:

    Anybody who could call “The Old Stove on Clark Street” an important painting is obviously a believer in the highly localized tempest in a teacup school of painting…this painting has absolutely no resonance beyond your front door and if it does you’re obviously “blowing” into it a mighty wind. This is no more than “collectors” substituting bad representative paintings for what they cannot afford in the “big names”.

    All best,


    • Thank you for your input. Obviously you are aware of our professional opinion and although we respect yours, we are in complete disagreement. We were as supportive of Borenstein’s paintings almost 60 years ago as we are today. Back then we may have been blowing into the wind but I admit that we were not entirely alone. William Watson, one of the foremost Canadian art dealers and connoisseurs of the early twentieth century, counted among his gallery artists Maurice Cullen, Clarence Gagnon, Robert Pilot and Sam Borenstein. On an institutional level, allow me to suggest a reading of “Jewish Painters of Montreal: Witnesses of Their Time 1930-1948” (2008), written by Esther Trepanier, the Director General of the Quebec Museum. We do not try to be all things to all people but we conduct our 60 year-old Canadian art gallery with integrity. My now late grandfather once published what he referred to as his precept: “What you buy is your business. What I sell is mine.”

      Best regards,


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