Twelve years ago this month, Sotheby's auction house in Toronto stunned the Canadian art world by selling a little-known Paul Kane portrait of a 19th-century gentleman Arctic explorer for almost $5.1-million. It was a watershed moment, the most money ever paid for a single work of Canadian art at auction (and a feat that remains uneclipsed).
Twelve months ago, Sotheby's Canada stunned the Canadian art world once again, this time by announcing it was getting out of live public auctions altogether. Auctions of so-called "important Canadian art," which Sotheby's had been running since the late 1960s, had become too expensive, the returns too small, the quality of consignments too meagre. Private sales, the company's managers declared, were the real growth area where the real money could be made.
Henceforth, consenting consignor and aspiring buyer would meet and exchange discreetly, away from the theatre of the public bidding war.
Starting this weekend, though, Sotheby's is, in the words of Marie-Jo Paquet, assistant vice-president at Sotheby's Canada, "renewing our commitment publicly to Canadian art." At its swank New York headquarters on the Upper East Side, the 270-year-old art purveyor is hosting an audacious four-week "selling exhibition" of close to 30 works by notable mid-20th-century abstractionists from Ontario and Quebec. Among them: Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jack Bush, Harold Town and Charles Gagnon. Paquet has been working on the project since last summer with Mark Buck, a former Torontonian now based in Manhattan as a Sotheby's assistant vice-president and specialist in 19th-century European art.
The plan – or perhaps more accurately, the hope – is not just to have a successful sale but to establish a beachhead for the creation of a longer-range market for Canadian art, to set new price benchmarks for post-Second World War pieces, and to position Canada's best-known abstractionists in dialogue with such acclaimed international abstractionists as Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Zao Wou-ki and Morris Louis.
If the terms "selling exhibition" and "selling exhibition gallery" smack a touch of the oxymoronic, that's entirely the point. The last 10 years have seen a blurring, and sometimes outright evaporation, of the conventions that once defined the world of fine art. It used to be that the auctioneer's focus was to woo consignments, and orchestrate public bidding wars; the dealer's, to discreetly cultivate clients, and host shows to move units out the door.
Today, particularly in major American and European centres, it's common for dealers to mount large, smartly curated, museum-quality shows, complete with fat catalogues – while the auctioneer around the corner forgoes the theatricality of the live public sale for the private one, for the online offering, or for the establishment of an in-house gallery.
The last of those is just what Sotheby's inaugurated in the fall of 2011 when it opened, in New York, the first of what are now three selling exhibition galleries, each called S2. (The others are in Hong Kong and London.) If the Manhattan gallery, an airy, all-white space with gleaming hardwood floors, looks like something "that might as well be a gallery in the heart of Chelsea," as one writer has observed, this is at once all to the good and intentional: The space was designed by Richard Gluckman, who has crafted Chelsea venues for the likes of uberdealers Larry Gagosian and Paula Cooper.
It's also represents what could be the start of a brave new world for Canadian art. According to Buck, "Canadian artists really have been operating within a sheltered marketplace in Canada for decades now." Indeed, it's a truism that, with a handful of exceptions, Canadian art has been underexposed, underappreciated and therefore undervalued internationally relative to its artistic merits.
But are the times a-changing'? Perhaps. Last July, a record auction at Christie's New York, of four Bush canvases that sold for a total of more than $1.6-million (U.S.), got many wondering if brighter days lay ahead. True, some cautioned that the winning bidder in each instance in the Bush resale was Canadian, and that the paintings' inclusion in a celebrity collection (that of singer Andy Williams) may have gunned the bidding more than usual.
But Sotheby's Buck saw it differently. He suggests that "the amazing results" meant "there was potential to engage people outside of Canada with great works of Canadian art." Bush and Riopelle already have decent international reputations, Buck observes. So why not "create a real market segue between artists that have been collected by our clients and introducing those clients to artists whom they perhaps have not been introduced to but may have an interest in?"
It's not the only synergy the art house is intent on mining. The hope is that New York, with "its international pool of collectors," and Sotheby's, with its vast reach, cachet and resources, will create marketplace magic. Certainly Sotheby's has affixed bullish price tags to some of its consignments – prices that, were they to be realized at auction, would be record-setters.
A two-metre-by-three-metre Riopelle canvas from 1954, titled Forestine, once owned by New York art dealer Pierre Matisse (son of Henri) is priced at $2.5-million (U.S.); the auction record for a Riopelle is $2.4-million (Canadian), set in 2012. The ask for Jean McEwen's Monogramme du roi blanc from 1954 is a heady $350,000; his auction record is $152,100, established almost four years ago. Guido Molinari's Serie Noir/Blanc, from 1967, is $180,000; his auction record: $100,395, in 2011. One of Claude Tousignant's coveted target paintings, Accélérateur chromatique (1969), is $200,000; auction record: $129,000, 2012. Looking for a Fernand Leduc? The asking price for his Composition, from 1948, is $170,000, against an auction record of about $85,000 established less than two years ago.
To boost its prospects, Sotheby's has produced a handsome, 112-page full-colour catalogue. It includes an informative essay on Toronto's Painters Eleven (alongside Bush and Town, the selling exhibition includes works by Oscar Cahén and Hortense Gordon) and Quebec's Automatistes and Plasticiens, written by Roald Nasgaard, author of Abstract Painting in Canada and curator of the acclaimed touring show, The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960. Sotheby's is also buttressing the "exhibition" side of the selling exhibition by including loans of paintings by Molinari, Bush contemporary Kazuo Nakamura, and Riopelle associates Paul Émile Borduas and Rita Letendre.
Explains Buck, "We wanted to give the show a little more depth where we felt it was lacking." The Borduas, Tendresse des gris, from 1955, was, in fact, painted in New York, and its loan by a London collector is believed to be its first-ever public showing.
Canadian art circles are understandably abuzz at Sotheby's chutzpah. Dare to struggle! Dare to win! If it's successful – and success may, in certain quarters, could be measured by the sale of as few as four or five works, provided they're sufficiently big-ticket – some will hail it as the Great Leap Forward for Canadian art. If the gambit fails? How about the Great Big Fail?