Canadian art breaking sales records

Canuck artists are selling their work for more now than ever.

Collectors are throwing money at high-end Canadian artworks. Proceeds from the spring sales at the big three Canadian auction houses, Heffel, Joyner Waddington's and Sotheby's, show this year is on track to be the ninth consecutive year of growth in prices. Anthony Westbridge, publisher of the Canadian Art Sales Index since 1980, confirms the spike. Last year's record sales were $34 million for both spring and fall; this year's total sales have already passed that amount.

Even oil sketches are going for record prices. Mount Robson from the North East, a small (30-by-38 centimetres) sketch by Lawren Harris, and so far the highest-priced work to sell at auction this year, sold for $567,500. (The previous record for a Harris sketch, $470,000, was set in '04.) But it's not just Group of Seven works that are fetching top dollar. Paintings by secondary artists that would have sold for $1,000 two years ago are earning closer to $5,000. “It's getting a little silly now,” Westbridge says.

The increasing popularity of Canadian art is partly due to the fact that Canadian galleries are reaping the benefits of putting art online, says Geoffrey Joyner, of Joyner Waddington's. “We used to send catalogues to interested buyers around the world,” says Joyner. “Online, they have much greater exposure.” Also, major players such as Kenneth Thomson, currently building his collection of more than 2,000 works of art for the Art Gallery of Ontario, and his son, David, who has been buying up Canadian modern art, are helping to drive up prices.

The increases may set off alarm bells indicating a bubble. The price of a sketch by homegrown talent like Harris is now nearing those being fetched by the European Impressionists who influenced Harris's early work. A Renoir oil painting, Au bord de la rivière, which at 33-by-42 centimetres is of about equivalent size to Harris's sketch, went for US$732,800 in May at Christie's New York. But Westbridge says it's just Canadian art getting its due. “There has been an incredible wealth of talent in this country for so long,” he says. “It's starting to come to the surface.”