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Curb your enthusiasm: Disappointing bids at contemporary Canadian art auction

Detail from Janet, a resin-and-pigment female nude by Toronto sculptor Evan Penny.

If remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience, then salesmanship represents optimism in the face of adversity – an ethos perhaps best exemplified by the title of that marketing best-seller The Sale Begins When the Customer Says No.

Certainly there were a fair number of nay-sayers Tuesdsay evening at an auction of Canadian contemporary art in downtown Toronto. Concrete Contemporary Auctions and Projects, created in 2012 as a division of long-running Waddington's, had 96 lots up for the bidding – but when the final hammer came down around 8:20 EST, an estimated 36 per cent of those lots had not found buyers.

Included among them was a striking resin-and-pigment female nude by noted Toronto sculptor Evan Penny whose works recently were the subject of a highly successful survey show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Janet went into Tuesday's sale before a crowd of more than 150 with a $40,000 to $60,000 estimate – the highest of the 96 lots – but garnered indifferent bidding that sputtered out around the $34,000 mark.

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Stephen Ranger, Concrete's founder and Waddington's vice-president of business development, called that result "a disappointment." But as ever in the auction business, hope springs eternal: Ranger said he had "two parties interested in stepping up to buy [the Penny] but they have to make sure they're going to be able to donate it to an [art gallery or museum] . . . where it really belongs." And where, presumably, the donor would receive a break on his or her income tax via the charitable donation.

Overall, Ranger opted to look on the sunny side. "I do think there's lots of room to grow here," he said, while acknowledging in the next breath "I think it's going to take a while."

"Tonight's results were tremendously encouraging," he said in summary, even though he refrained from providing details as to how many works were, in fact, sold and what the evening's tally was since he anticipated he likely would be making several sales post-auction. Still, a rough calculation indicates Concrete likely grossed between $285,000 and $300,000 on the evening, including the 20 per cent buyer's premium it charges on the successful bid price. This was certainly higher than the $241,000 total Concrete realized on the 47 lots it sold last year at this time but below the low-end estimate of $439,000 it had affixed to this year's consignments.

Most of the lots that did sell went for amounts near the low-end of their estimates. Liberty, a limited-edition digital print by well-known native artist Rebecca Belmore, for instance, sold for $10,800, including premium, against a $10,000-$15,000 estimate. Similarly, photographic superstar Edward Burtynsky's digital chromogenic colour print, Silver Lake Operations #12, earned $12,000, including premium, against a $12,000-$15,000 estimate.

At the same time, there was a handful of works that performed above estimate. Most notable among these was a large acrylic on canvas, completed in 2007 by Winnipeg's Wanda Koop. Titled Satellite Cities (Yellow/Green with Dark City), it sold for $26,400 with premium, well above its $15,000-$20,000 estimate and likely an auction record for the artist. A 1965 photolithograph of jazz musician Carla Bley by the legendary Michael Snow fetched almost $4,100 (est. $1500-$2,000) while Calgary's Tim Zuck saw his small 1988 charcoal on paper, Glacier and Summit/Queneesh, go for $6,000, substantially more than its estimate of $1,000-$1,500. An ink-and-pencil nude done by Kitchener's Jeremy Smith in 1986 sold for $12,000, easily besting its $4,000-$6,000 estimate.

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James More


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