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Off the Radar Screen: a rough guide to the growing Canadian art market


The cost to purchase an “A List” work of art in the U.S.A. or Europe has become prohibitive for most art buyers, with many works by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon going for as high as $50 to $150 million.

The contemporary American and European markets have become almost equally prohibitive, with the likes of Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter selling in the tens of millions as well.

Fear not, art lovers and investors—you don’t have to look any further than north of the border for some relatively obscure gems, where the market is still young, fresh, relatively cheap, and full of potential.

Canadians were not traditionally passionate supporters of their pre- and post-war Modernists and it is not until recent years that these very competent if not globally recognized artists have been getting their due, both critically and on the auction block.

In French Canada, the Montreal-based “Automatistes", who include the likes of Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle, are fetching prices in the hundreds of thousands and even millions in recent years, with Riopelle leading the pack. Although Riopelle lived much of his adult life in Paris, he is fondly regarded by Canadians as one of their own, as he did spend his formative and later years in his beloved Quebec. He died and is buried there.

In English Canada, it’s all about numbers.

There is the Group of Seven, who in the 30s and 40s dragged Canada into the Modernist era with their raw, expressionistic paintings of the Canadian landscape. Major works by Lawren Harris and Tom Thomson are now breaching the million dollar mark.

In the late 1940s and 50s in Toronto, it was Painters Eleven, a group heavily influenced by the abstract expressionism of the New York school. Jack Bush and William Ronald lead the pack, as their major works are now selling in the hundreds of thousands.

And on the Prairies, there was the Regina Five, a group influenced by colour field painting, and to some extent Clement Greenberg, who was invited to give a workshop at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, in 1962. Emma Lake was an artists’ retreat where the likes of Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Jules Olitski also gave workshops in the 1950s and 60s. Leading this group were Kenneth Lochhead, Ronald Bloore and Ted Godwin, and they might currently be considered the best value, with their works selling in the tens of thousands. This was a significant Modernist movement in Canada and has gone somewhat underappreciated. When the work of Canada's growing A-list becomes out of reach for many collectors, the stock of the Regina Five will undoubtedly go up.

On the independent front, the leaders are undoubtedly Emily Carr, Alex Colville and David Milne, all of whose works have eclipsed the million dollar mark. Other notables are the west coast’s B.C. Binning and Jack Shadbolt, who have transcended the $100,000 barrier.

The amazing thing about the Canadian market is that many of these works could have been bought for a mere fraction of their current values only a decade and in some case a few years ago, and, as time passes and Canadians begin to fully appreciate what they have at hand, the future looks very bright for continued and significant increases. Another positive is that the market seems to have cooled somewhat, with estimated auction values going unfulfilled. It could be considered a buyer's market at the moment, and for the collector on a budget, fractional shares is a great option.

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