TORONTO — The Lawren Harris painting "Mountain Forms" has set a towering new benchmark in Canadian art by selling for over $11.2 million at auction, more than doubling the previous record established in 2002.
Heffel Fine Art Auction House had estimated the 1926 oil canvas depicting Mount Ishbel in the Sawback Range in the Rocky Mountains would fetch between $3 million and $5 million — the highest ever placed on a Harris piece, said president David Heffel.
Offers streamed in for the 60-by-70-inch (152.4-by-177.8-centimetre) canvas at a blistering pace at the fall live auction, held at the Design Exchange in Toronto on Wednesday night. Within minutes, the bids had steamrolled through the high end of the estimate.
When the hammer fell, the piece sold for $9.5 million — a new Canadian record. Coupled with an 18 per cent buyer's premium, an auction house fee, the final tally was boosted to $11,210,000.
"One quick crack at a hammer, and one giant leap for the Canadian art market," said Heffel to enthusiastic applause from the assembled audience.
The sale of "Mountain Forms" has shattered the record set in 2002 when Paul Kane's 1845 oil canvas "Scene in the Northwest - Portrait" sold for $5,062,500, after including the buyer's premium.
Heffel was tight-lipped on the identity of the buyer, in line with the auction house's strict confidentiality policy. He would only say that the prized piece had found "a great new home by a passionate, dedicated and sincere collector," and expressed confidence that the public would have the chance in future to revisit the work.
"We're really just the conduit from a lot of hard work that starts with the artist, his creation of a masterpiece," said Heffel.
"To see it set a new benchmark for a Canadian painting, Canadian culture, I think is a real tribute to the fantastic artist that Canada produced."
Harris, who was born in Brantford, Ont., in 1885, is credited with being most responsible for the formation of the Group of Seven.
Actor-comedian Steve Martin has been a vocal champion of Harris and his work, and observers say his advocacy has helped considerably boost the profile of the late landscape artist.
"Mountain Forms" was one of the works featured in the high-profile exhibit "The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris" co-curated by Martin and presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario earlier this year. It was also showcased at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Beyond its recent appearances, the canvas was also included in a touring exhibition across five U.S. states in 1930 and an exhibition that took place in five major Canadian museums in 2002.
"When he came to the portrayals of the mountains especially, he combines realism and abstraction in an incredibly wonderful way," said James King, author of "Inward Journey: The Life of Lawren Harris."
"It's not how a mountain would appear to our eyes if we were to look at it," King added. "He's stripped it down and made it very abstract."
"Mountain Forms" sets a new high watermark for works of Harris that have previously sold for well above projections.
Last November, "Mountain and Glacier" had a pre-sale estimate of just $1 million to $1.5 million before selling for $4,602,000, a new high for a Harris painting. At the same Heffel auction, "Winter Landscape" went for $3,658,000 despite its pre-sale estimate of $1.2 million to $1.6 million.
Those heady sales results combined with the exhibit had experts expecting strong interest in "Mountain Forms," which shattered pre-sale estimates.
"Mountain Forms" was one of 10 Harris works that sold at Wednesday's Heffel auction.
"Mount Robson from Berg Lake" sold for $1,888,000, well over the pre-sale estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. "Mount Odaray from Lake McArthur / Rocky Mountain Sketch CXXV" fetched $2,006,000. In all, the 10 works by Harris earned $16,961,320, Heffel said in a news release.
A number of other works sold far above the pre-sale estimates.
— A.J. Casson’s "Country Crisis," considered the most famous work by the Group of Seven artist, sold for $1,534,000 (pre-sale estimate $600,000 – $800,000).
— "Sleet Storm," the rare painting by the legendary Tom Thomson sold for $1,534,000 (pre-sale estimate $1,000,000 – $1,500,000).
— Two works by Emily Carr also exceeded pre-sale expectations. "Alert Bay" sold for $1,062,000 (pre-sale estimate $900,000 – $1,200,000) while "Maude Island Totem" earned $885,000 ($400,000 – $600,000).
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