Re-evaluating the Canadian Art Market Pt. 2 –

heffel Re evaluating the Canadian Art Market Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.comThe Canadian art market and the market for Canadian art exist within a particularly interesting framework that has limited the extent to which the market for Canadian art can explore its potential.  Although many of Canada’s most famous and highly desirable artists sought to establish a distinctly Canadian aesthetic and a uniquely Canadian artistic heritage, the strong connection with Europe that influenced many of these artists led to the adoption of styles and techniques that are universally admired and highly marketable.   For this reason, combined with what would seem to be a prime geographical location, it would therefore make sense that the market for Canadian art would be a dominant force on the world stage and that Canadian art would be a strong feature of important international art auction catalogues.  Except, for a number of reasons, the market for Canadian art has failed develop the sort of strong international market that it deserves.

A clue alluding to one of the reasons for the current status of the market for Canadian art comes in the form of a statistic provided by Heffel’s, Canada’s top art auction house.  According to their website, Heffel “holds over 60% market share of worldwide Canadian art auction sales, with over $275 million in art auction sales since 1995″.  Considering that Heffel only operates in Canada, and is not one of the big international auction houses, the market share that Heffel has is rather impressive.  Even more impressive is the fact that having hammered down the sixth highest grossing Canadian fine art auction at their May 2011 live sale in Vancouver, Heffel have now conducted all 11 of the top grossing sales of Canadian fine art.  Although impressive, these stats suggest that even though Canada’s artistic heritage is inextricably international thanks to its European roots, the framework and mechanics of the Canadian art market are decidedly nationalistic and remain relatively cloistered.

A statistic even more indicative of the level of dominance that Canadian auction house Heffel has over the market for Canadian art comes from a recent Heffel press release which states that: “As the industry leader, Heffel, in the spring 2011 sale, sold more than all of our competitors’ sales totals combined in the 2011 spring season and realized a total value of over 168% of the pre~sale low estimate, with 87% of the consigned lots sold”.  A dominant art market force if ever I saw one!!.  This is not to suggest that Heffel are in any way doing anything wrong as it is through no fault of their own, or of any other auction house, that the Canadian art market is the way that it is.  In fact, Heffel should be commended for their efforts to reach an international audience and promote the work of Canadian artists around the world.  Heffel should also be congratulated for becoming so successful in a market where others have failed.  My purpose for highlighting these Heffel statistics is to show how reliant the Canadian art auction market has been on a single Canadian national auction house and to provide evidence that suggests a highly nationalistic and insular art market.

The last serious attempt by an international auction house to attain a significant share of the market for Canadian art ended in disaster.  In 2001, Sotheby’s joined forces with Canadian auction house Ritchies in an agreement that saw Ritchies provide the space and handle payments for auctions for which Sotheby’s had located the items as well as provided the appraisals and estimates. Failure by Ritchies to pay consignors within an appropriate time frame after an auction in 2009 saw Sotheby’s sever ties with Ritchie’s who declared bankrupt soon after the split. According to an article from at the time:

“Visitors to the Web site for Canadian auction house Ritchie’s will find that the company’s last connection to the sector it once dominated no longer exists. A notice on the company’s site,, confirms that a bankruptcy order was issued against Ritchie’s Inc. on Oct. 26, 2009, with Grant Thornton Limited of Royal Bank Plaza, Toronto, shown as the court-appointed trustee.”

The fact that Sotheby’s already had a presence in Canada that had been active since the late 1960′s suggests that Sotheby’s knew how nationalistic the Canadian art market was and that they would need to join forces with a Canadian national auction house if they were to infiltrate the market for Canadian art to a worthwhile degree.  Unfortunately, it seems that the business model chosen by Sotheby’s was not the right model for the Canadian art market.

As I discussed in my last post, there is strong evidence to suggest that the market for Canadian art is beginning to emerge from the stifled confines of the Canadian art market and achieve the sort of international recognition and market activity that it clearly deserves. My next post, the final on the Canadian art market, will take a further look at some more evidence that supports the positive trend towards a stronger international market for Canadian art.

To be continued………………..

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.comt Re evaluating the Canadian Art Market Pt. 2 –, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.



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