David Heffel | Why Collect Canadian Art + An Intro to the Canadian Art Market

Artsy Collecting
Oct 21, 2013 12:31AM

Heffel. It’s one of the most reputable names in the Canadian art market, and it’s shared by brothers David and Robert, president and vice-president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, respectively. Largely credited with the last decade’s growth in the Canadian art market—since they began in 1995, the auction house has surpassed $325 million in art auction sales and sells more Canadian art than any auctioneer worldwide—the Heffels are seated in the perfect position to reflect on the changing market. In a chat with Artsy, David Heffel discusses the shifts in Canadian art, which first looked to Europe, then ran parallel to regional movements, and has now found a voice in photoconceptualism, bringing Canadian art to the international forefront.

Artsy: Are there characteristics specific to Canadian art?

David Heffel: A lot of landscape painting (laughs). That’s a tough question. Canadian art is very much in tune to the landscape and the physical environment of our country. There’s not a lot of portrait painting. Although it’s a new world out there now, particularly with the advent of the photo conceptualists, predominantly based out of Vancouver, the likes of Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Ian Wallace. So historically, Canadian art is predominantly landscape painting but this is a changing landscape and now it’s a whole new world. Canadian art has become much less regional and much more international.

Artsy: And how is that reflected in the auction market?

DH: There’s a migration, in our business, into postwar and contemporary work. Historically the Canadian art market has been quite traditional, so you could make the connection between the New York and London sales which were dominated by the Impressionist painters and now the biggest sales that are being generated, coming out of New York, are the postwar and contemporary sales. We’re seeing that in Canada, and [Art Toronto] kind of ties into that.

Artsy: And wasn’t Heffel the first Canadian auction house to divide historical and contemporary art?

DH: Our firm was the first. Prior to 2008, we would present our live auctions, and our online sales of Canadian art, in their entirety, and in 2008 we identified a strong growing market particularly in Canadian postwar and contemporary art. At that point, we divided our ballroom sales into essentially two different catalogues, two different sessions, segregating early Canadian works, or fine Canadian art from postwar and contemporary.

I think the art fairs kind of supports that. In 1995 Heffel started our auctions in Canada about the same time the Toronto art fair started up. Also the original founders of Art Toronto were from Vancouver. There’s a transition in the Canadian market moving away from the mainstays of the Toronto-based Group of Seven and Tom Thompson, more as a result of nutrition. It’s really difficult and hard to get great paintings from those early decades by these artists. Most masterpieces have migrated into public institutions.

Artsy: How has the market changed in recent years?

DH: The percentage, the dollar volume for postwar and contemporary Canadian in the auction market has really exploded in recent years. The first painting to sell in Canada for over 1 million dollars [all prices in Canadian dollars] was a Lawren Harris in 1999, Emily Carr being the second in May 2000, but since 2005, we’ve seen a number of Canadian works by contemporary artists break that million dollar milestone, including artists such as Jean Paul Lemieux, who sold for 2.34 million in November 2011.

Artsy: And what are the major currents you’ve seen in Canadian art over the last few decades?

DH: Jeff Wall and photoconceptualists coming out of Vancouver is pretty monumental for Canadian art. On a personal note, it is very rewarding to see a great Jeff Wall hanging on display at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art in New York] and then head to the Museum of Modern Art and see another stunning Jeff Wall on display. Being from Vancouver and you know, when I was in university, listening to Jeff Wall as guest lecturer a number of times, it was quite great to see just how well he’s done, particularly for an artist in Vancouver to break into that international success. This international success for the Canadian artists Jeff Wall, Jean Paul Riopelle, and Jack Bush, is monumental and a very rare achievement of recognition.

Artsy: Why is that significant for the country? What factors contribute to this success?

DH: I think it’s what the message is behind his work. He’s very attuned to an international audience. A viewer standing in front of a Jeff Wall in Berlin, or New York, or London, can have that same worldwide understanding or appreciation whereas historically, if you look back at the beginnings of Canadian art in the 1800s, the works that were being produced mostly had regionally Canadian content but were being painted in a European manner. And then with the advent of the Group of Seven and artists like Emily Carr and David Milne, they came to develop a Canadian identity, being presented through a unique Canadian stylistic approach to painting. And some of those paintings were able to transcend borders and boundaries, but for the most part its pretty domestic subject matter related to Canada. It wasn’t until postwar with perhaps some of the Automatiste painters, Borduas, Riopelle, the Painters Eleven in Toronto and now with the photoconceptualists in Vancouver, that Canadian art became much more relevant on an international platform.

The exception to our list is the indigenous art. Specific, for example, indigenous, First Nation Northwest coast work. The First Nation, particularly pre-discovery, and Northwest coast Indian art, can stand up on the world stage anywhere and is collected worldwide. It is highly sought after internationally.

Artsy: Artists we should we keep our eyes on?

DH: I like Joe Fafard and Tony Scherman, Rodney Graham. I think it’s always a good time to collect, if you can acquire a great painting, by Emily Carr, Jean-Paul Riopelle, or Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean McEwen...

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