The Art of the Auction

Past the heavy wood doors of the Vancouver Club, through the grand and imposing foyer, and up a few curving staircases is the UBC Reading Room on whose south wall hangs a painting of deep greens and earthy browns. There’s a canoe, a sculpture, and some sort of stylized bird in the upper corner, all bordered by a deep ebony frame. As striking and recognizable as the canvas is, though, there’s something missing: in the bottom right corner should be the signature ME CARR-it was there when H.R. MacMillan bequeathed the painting to the club but it’s curiously now missing. That’s because it’s not Emily Carr’s The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase), it’s a fake. A fugazi. Or more accurately, a replica.

I know this because I’m looking at the real canvas, unadorned by fancy framing, looking small and lonely leaning up against the wall in the basement of 2247 Granville Street, the office of Heffel Fine Art. Over the past 18 years, the 35-year-old Vancouver gallery has morphed into the country’s preeminent auctioneer of fine art. Brothers David and Robert Heffel are extolling the piece’s virtues. “First off, it’s big for a Carr,” says David, the elder. The piece measures 43 3/8 inches by 26 inches. “And it’s from her mature period. Plus, the subject matter-war canoe, First Nation sculpture-couldn’t be stronger.”

“When Lawren Harris was choosing Carr pieces for the original Vancouver Art Gallery these were the exact sort of canvases he chose,” adds Robert.

All these indicators led the brothers and their team to estimate the picture at a conservative $1.2 million to $1.6 million. And while past results are no indication of future performance, Heffel’s track record with Carr canvases suggests a pretty large number might result when the gavel falls at their next auction, on November 28. In 2000 Carr’s canvas War Canoes, Alert Bay blew past its estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 to sell for a then-record $1,018,750. The following decade saw Carr bests eclipsed at five of their subsequent auctions. They sold Wind in the Tree Tops, the current record holder (not just for Carr but for any female Canadian artist), in 2011 for $2,164,500, and it’s worth noting that it’s both considerably smaller than The Crazy Stair and of a far less desirable subject. Continue reading…

If the painting does set a new record it will be the latest feather in the cap of the pair of gallerists/auctioneers, who were more or less thrust into the business in their early 20s when their father, the much-loved industrialist turned art lover Kenneth Grant Heffel, passed away suddenly at the age of 52. At the time the Heffel Gallery had a blue chip stable of Canadian artists and showed a few international hot shots, but it was the gallery’s interest in brokering private sales that showed them the potential for an auction house based in Western Canada. “Frankly, we couldn’t compete with the auction business model in reselling pieces,” so in 1995 they had their first auction at the Sheraton Wall Centre. It was a success, grossing a million dollars. In fact, it became the highest-grossing Western Canadian auction ever. It grew every year, but it wasn’t until 2000 and the War Canoes auction that things really took off. The following years saw Heffel establish auction records for a who’s who of Canadian artists-not just Westerners like Carr and E.J. Hughes but eastern establishment artists like Jean Paul Lemieux ($2,340,000), Maurice Cullen ($1,495,000), and David Milne ($1,437,500), and Group of Seven members Lawren Harris ($3,510,000), Arthur Lismer ($1,111,500), J.E.H. MacDonald ($977,500), and A.Y. Jackson ($760,500). In light of this growing clout they made the decision in 2003 to split the auction locations: fall in Toronto, May in Vancouver. The ultimate recognition came this spring when Sotheby’s, one of the world’s giant auction houses, with a presence in Canada since 1967, quietly abandoned the Canadian market. The official line was that they perceived a lack of growth opportunities, but scuttlebutt had it they were tired of perennially finishing second to Heffel.

The Heffels’ outlook for Canadian art is, not surprisingly, more optimistic. “If you look at an artist like Emily Carr, her pieces still sell at a fraction of Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo, who were her true contemporaries,” says Robert.

A lot of things could happen when the gavel drops on The Crazy Stair. There may be a new record for a Carr painting, there plausibly may even be a new record for a Canadian painting, and the Vancouver Club may receive a windfall of gargantuan proportions. The only certainty is that the two brothers quietly watching the proceedings from the back of the room will have yet again cemented themselves as the brokers of the country’s dreams, aspirations, and the odd masterpiece.