Much was made of the presence of an acrylic and charcoal on canvas by Robert Motherwell from the early 1970s at the House of Heffel big spring sales, which took place yesterday (June 1) online and by phone since auction houses in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, where live sales usually take place. It was the first major work by the famous American Abstract Expressionist, perhaps best known for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1965-67) at the Museum of Modern Art, to go on the block in Canada.
The 72in by 48in Motherwell, August Wed #5 (1972), from the collection of the late Vancouver collector Joan Stewart Clarke, was estimated at C$2 million (C$2.5 million ($1.5–1.9 million). exceeded the low estimate with premium, making 2.1 million Canadian dollars ($1.7 million), he had to give way to Jean-Paul Riopelle. Untitled (Untitled) from 1953, whom Heffel’s vice-president and auctioneer, Robert Heffel, aptly referred to earlier in the day as “the showstopper”.
The approximately 29-by-39-inch oil on canvas fetched C$2.4 million ($1.8 million), or C$2.8 million ($2.2 million) with a late afternoon fee from the sale, which focused on post-war and contemporary art. This was well above its C$1 million pre-sale estimate of C$1.5 million.
It was one of six works proposed by Montreal-born Riopelle, who moved to France in 1947, working both there and in his native Quebec until his death in 2002. The centenary of his birth looms on the horizon next October. year.
In total, the three-session Heffel sale, which culminated with the Clarke collection, brought in C$16.5 million ($13 million) with fees, interest from around the world. Although celebratory after the sale, a delighted Heffel already seemed to miss the various works, saying, “To spend time with so many works of such a high caliber this season was truly an honor for our team across the country.”
Although Motherwell’s seminal work was a first in Canada, the artist had several ties to Toronto, having visited the city in 1970, where he spoke at the local college of art, then known as the ‘OCA (The Ontario College of Art). He exhibited at the David Mirvish Gallery in 1973 and was shown at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in 2011, some two decades after his death.
Among the nine works proposed from the Stewart Clarke collection, that of Paul-Emile Borduas bluster (1954) generated the most action, easily surpassing its high estimate of C$90,000, raking in C$200,000 ($158,000) or C$241,250 ($190,000) with fees. Borduas is notable for having educated Riopelle, even directing him towards abstraction.
Other highlights of the late afternoon were those of Alex Colville coastal figure (1951), which fetched C$1 million just seconds after the auction opened, eventually reaching C$1.3 million ($1 million) or C$1.5 million (1.2 million dollars) with fees. Discounting the premium, it was exactly double his low estimate of C$650,000. Meanwhile, acrylic on canvas by Jack Bush Gay Swing (1976) took home C$600,000 ($474,000) or C$721,250 ($570,000) with fees, double its high estimate.
Without forgetting the great oil of Rita Letendre Reflection of Eden (1961), which cost C$375,000 ($296,000). With fees, the price came to C$451,250 ($356,000), a record for the late artist and about four times his low estimate. Lithograph by David Hockney Rain (1973) made C$140,000 ($110,000), or C$169,250 ($133,000) with bounty, which is surprising since it was valued at just C$25,000-C$35,000. Interest in the beloved British artist’s work may have been stimulated by his fresco-sized mural in the AGO group show I’m here: home movies and everyday masterpieces.
The early evening followed with the sale of Canadian, Impressionist and Modern Art. Ever-popular Lawren Harris shook things up with the little Mountain sketch (circa 1928), which fetched C$850,000 ($671,000), C$1,021,250 ($807,000) with fees, easily beating its high estimate of C$700,000. Harris’ oil painting Algoma (circa 1950) nabbed another C$450,000 ($355,000), or C$541,250 ($427,000) with fees. But it was Emily Carr who once again stole the show. His canvas Singing trees (circa 1935), with a low estimate of C$500,000, started slowly but climbed to just over C$1m, or C$1.2m ($997,000) with fees, topping the session.