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Emily Carr painting a $200,000 bargain at auction

A detail from Emily Carr’s Kitseukla watercolour

Calgary's booming economy let down art lovers Sunday, after a painting by a celebrated Canadian artist sold for about half its expected hammer price.

Emily Carr's Kitseukla watercolour, which depicts Gitxsan-Wet'suwet'en totem poles in the first nations village of Kitseukla, British Columbia, hit the auction block for the first time Sunday. It comes out of the West Coast artist's so-called Indian Collection, and she painted it in 1928 after being cheered on by the Group of Seven.

Major Cuthbert Holmes purchased pieces directly from Ms. Carr, and Kitseukla – which is considered ethnographically important because it captures totem poles in their original context – has been in his family for three generations.

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"Carr's major contribution is her multilayering of her depiction of Canadian culture and environment at the same time," Kerry Mason, an Emily Carr expert and art historian at the University of Victoria, said days before the auction. "We haven't had something this important [from Carr] come up on auction in a long time … To have one that has absolutely squeaky-clean provenance … this just doesn't happen very often."

The Holmes family turned to Levis Fine Art Auctions & Appraisals in Calgary to sell their 76-by-56-centimetre piece of art. It is an expressionist painting, and grey tones and long brushstrokes dominate the work.

The sellers, as well as the auction house, hoped Calgary's oil barons would step up.

"Calgary is a great place for art, and it has a very good economy," Doug Levis, who served as the auctioneer, said before the auction. He expected it to go for between $300,000 and $400,000.

Mr. Levis started the bidding on Lot 008 at $350,000 and was forced to work his way south.

"Well, $200,000? Is there any interest at $200,000?" he asked the crowd of about 100. A phone bidder jumped in, but those on the floor could not be persuaded to go higher. "All through and satisfied at an opening bid of a mere $200,000," he said. It was half statement, half question.

"This is bargain prices."

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He begged for more, but the hammer – well, a slap of his hand on the podium – came down at $200,000. Buyer No. 572 won with just one bid. "Thank you very much," Mr. Levis said after the minute-long auction.

"I'm a little disappointed," Mr. Levis told three reporters after Ms. Carr's piece was toted off the easel by an employee wearing white gloves. "Let me put it this way, though: I'm very happy for the purchaser, because I think that he got a fabulous watercolour at a very, very reasonable price."

Mr. Levis joked at his misplaced optimism.

"Don't take financial advice from someone with a degree in fine arts," he said, "i.e. me."

Mr. Levis would not reveal the winning bidder's name, although he does expect the watercolour to remain in Canada. The auction house is familiar with the bidder, he said. The seller was unavailable for comment.

The auction house would not say whether the painting had a reserve price. Levis adds a 17-per-cent premium to the auction price, meaning the buyer will fork over $234,000 plus GST.

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Calgary has disappointed Levis before. In April 2009, when the price of a barrel of oil traded below $50 (U.S.), a Tom Thomson sold for $350,000 despite a reserve price of $400,000. The 1915 oil painting, Untitled – Dawn on Round Lake (Kawawaymog Lake), was expected to bring in between $500,000 and $600,000.

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About the Author

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

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