Auction Central

The auction season launched in Vancouver in late May when 400 well-groomed men and women filed through the convention centre’s Parkview Terrace and, together with over 200 absentee bidders, delivered $12 million to the Heffel Fine Art Auction House. This moved the total auction sales done by brothers Robert and David Heffel (who began auctioning in 1995) comfortably past the $100-million mark. Meanwhile, over everyone’s head, electronic bids flew through the ether as Heffel’s separate online auction ticked across BlackBerries. (Begun in 1999, online auctions have garnered the house $20.3 million.)

Sybil Andrews linocuts set the tone at the live auction; the evening’s first three lots went for several times their estimate. Flower Girls, appraised at $12,000, went to an absentee bidder for $95,000. One young couple, sitting to the side of the ballroom, spent $1.5 million with the same blasé expressions most people reserve for the purchase of a latte. Their acquisitions included a little-known Frederick Varley painting, for which they paid $600,000 (plus $90,000 buyer’s premium).

A Tom Thomson sketch, Tamarack Swamp, sold for $1 million, making it the priciest lot of the evening. “Sounds cheap,” quipped David Heffel. And he was right: days later, another Thomson sketch, Pine Trees at Sunset, sold at a Sotheby’s auction for twice that. Sotheby’s (teamed with Ritchies) and Waddington’s, Heffels’ chief competitors, are both Toronto-based; Heffel claims to have led the Canadian art auction market since 2005, a startling fact given its relative youth. (Waddington’s is 150 years old, and Sotheby’s is the most ancient auction house on the planet.)

This rocketing success is part of a global art boom that reminds Robert Heffel of local real-estate fever. The last comparable spending spree was back in 1989, he says, when the Japanese were buying up impressionists in advance of that economy’s tumble. Certainly there was a quasi-madness to some of the purchases this year’s; an oil by Henrietta Mabel May that can only be described as quaint, estimated at a mere $18,000, sold for 10 times that amount.

The caprices of ultra-wealthy collectors in far-flung cities, paired with increasing confidence in online sales, may be wild-cards in an unstable art market. But Heffel’s ride these past few years has secured for both brothers (Robert presides at left) a globally significant, yet surprisingly local, institution.