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Canadian art market turning away from Group of Seven?

Detail of Lawren Harris's "Mountain Sketch XCI (Mountain on the Athabasca River)"; oil on board. Expected to go for as much as $600,000, it remained unsold at a Sotheby's auction in Toronto on May 24, 2012.

A Period of Transition. That's the title Van Morrison chose to give to a record he released in 1977. It was a time when the shibboleths of the rock music on which Morrison had based his career were being strenuously challenged by the likes of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys.

It's a rubric that could easily be used to describe both the overall auction market for Canadian art and Sotheby's Canada's live sale of such art Thursday evening in Toronto.

As recently as five years ago, that market was dominated by the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and other historical "blue-chippers."

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Now, though, most of the premium works by those artists are ensconced in institutions, never to go to market again, or held by well-heeled private collectors with no need to sell. The result is a vacuum of sorts, with auction houses and their clients looking more and more to post-Second World War and contemporary art as "the next big thing" but not really knowing where to go beyond, say, Jean-Paul Riopelle.

The Sotheby's sale was a case in point, putting up 140 lots for bidding valued by estimate at between $4.2-million and $5.9-million. Of these, less than a dozen were from Group of Seven artists, and at least half of those failed to find buyers.

Included in that category was a Rocky Mountain sketch from the 1920s by Group founder Lawren Harris. Estimated at $400,000-$600,000, it would have made that and likely much more a few years ago, but Thursday it failed to elicit any bids beyond $375,000 and remained unsold.

Indeed, unofficial results show that Sotheby's had to declare an estimated 53 of its wares unsold at auction's end, with the result that its total gross earnings for the evening were a disappointing $3.54-million, including buyer's premium (20 per cent of the hammer price up to $50,000, 15 per cent on the amount in excess of $50,000).

Still, there were some bright moments. An impressive multi-coloured abstract done by Quebec master Paul-Émile Borduas during his peak period (1947-57) fetched almost $664,000 including premium, smashing his previous auction record, $520,000, set in 2007.

Also benchmarking a record was a painting by Borduas contemporary Jack Bush. Titled Glide, the 1971 acrylic on canvas sold for $267,000, eclipsing the previous pace-setter of $234,000 established only last year.

Indeed, it was artists from the 1950s onwards – Kazuo Nakamura, William Kurelek, William Ronald, Yves Gaucher and Gen X "creator" Douglas Coupland (whose Warhol-inflected four-panel silk-screened portrait of Micorsoft founder Bill Gates sold above estimate for $36,000) – who gave the sale its pep.

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Of course, it wasn't all bad news for "old guys." An impressive David Milne scene, painted in Massachusetts in 1920, went for $244,000 against an estimate of $150,000-$250,000, while Richard Clow's classic Sledges and Figures Skating on the Frozen Lake in Front of Montmorency Falls, done some time between 1834 and 1853, sparked sufficiently heated bidding to sell for almost $440,000, including premium, well above its high-end estimate of $200,000. Its purchaser was Winnipeg art dealer David Loch.

"The market behaves strongly for high-level things, things unique, rare, that haven't been seen before," was how another Winnipeg dealer, Shaun Mayberry, was assessing the situation post-auction. "But things that are B or C-level, even by quality artists, aren't finding buyers."

He cited the fate of Lawren Harris's sketch of a mountain on the Athabasca River as an example. "We've seen a huge number of Harrises circulate through the marketplace in last seven or eight years, earning millions. [But]all the buyers who've been primarily interested in acquiring them have bought what they want and now they're looking for other things."

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