BlogMay 30, 2009

Review of the 2009 May Auction Sales

Albert H. Robinson, R.C.A. (1881-1956), St. Tite, 1928, oil on panel 11. 1/8 x 12. 7/8

Having just returned from attending three auction sales held over a period of less than one week when two of the three houses left their catalogue cover paintings unsold and the third, although not the cover picture, the lot anticipated to be the most costly offering, did not meet its reserve, I find a Canadian relevance and wisdom to a couple of quotes I read recently in a New York paper: "Even institutions like the Museum of Modern Art are avoiding auctions.... There’s an element of uncertainty with an auction that in this climate makes it more prudent to sell privately", said Ann Temkin, chief curator in the department of painting and sculpture at MoMA. "The game has definitely shifted,' said Christopher Eykyn, a former head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s who is now a dealer in New York." (N.Y. Sunday Times, Carol Vogel article "In Slump More Art is Selling in Private", April 26, 2009.)


With the advent of the month of June we are delighted to refer you to a piece I recently wrote about the Beaver Hall Group and the long standing commitment of Galerie Walter Klinkhoff to their promotion and recognition in the Canadian art market.


It is now forty-five years ago when Walter and Gertrude Klinkhoff had an exhibition and sale of paintings by Nora Collyer. Our aggressive follow-up resumed in 1976 with an exhibition for Kathleen Morris. A complete list of these exhibitions can be found by following the above link but here it suffices to say that by 2003 we had organized retrospective exhibition for six additional Beaver Hall women and several of the men, including a second exhibit for Kathleen Morris. Art collectors, both novice and veteran, regularly ask advice from us as to what they should buy. Of course, as you might expect we encourage them to buy what we sell, advice we give unabashedly telling them that we do have much better things to do with our money than to buy poor quality works of art. Obviously, we suggest that they only buy what they like but, in all honesty, if their motives are investment only they should be buying what in the future others will want to buy.


Commercial art galleries like ours are very different from auction houses where, as the Canadian president of an auction house said recently, "you see both the best and the worst." I was reading an article, actually an interview with Charles Curtis, a master of wine, who is head of North American wine sales for the firm Christie's. When asked the advice he would offer to new collectors and how he recommends they learn the value of different vintages he replied, "My best advice to new collectors is, ‘the more you drink, the more you know.’ I mean that only partly tongue-in-cheek: it’s only with wide-ranging tasting experience that one will come to know the world of wine and which wines are the most compelling. I encourage everyone to try as much as possible! And for those still refining their olfactory memory, it always helps to keep notes on what you drink – I always carry a small notebook in my pocket to write down my thoughts while they’re fresh in my head."


Much the same could be said in a slightly different tangent about advising novice collectors of fine art as to what to buy. Certainly, the more they look the more they will know. Where our markets diverge significantly is that whereas the works of art we sell are unique pieces, wine is a commodity and should one not purchase one’s cases of 1989 Haut-Brion, this week another similar opportunity will soon come around. Not so with an important painting, a unique work! Looking at the selection of excellent works of art we are presently offering I can only speculate that if you don’t buy right now our Sarah Robertson or Emily Coonan, assuming that the new owners do not donate them to a museum, you will have your next opportunity likely in the year 2039.


Coonan and Robertson were both Beaver Hall Group artists but Coonan, for reasons suggested in "Painting Friends: The Beaver Hall Women Painters", did not continue the extended friendship that bonded together the women who are commonly referred to as the Beaver Hall Group. AY Jackson wrote in the introduction to the 1951 Sarah Robertson Memorial Exhibition at The National Gallery of Canada, where "Pink Tulips", by the way, was featured, "[f]or her subject matter she did not go too far afield: to Brockville, at the Hewards' summer home, or across the border into Vermont were the farthest ventures; the subjects of most of her paintings were in or about Montreal. Two or three canvases a year were the limit of her production." "Pink Tulips" is an extraordinary opportunity to buy a Robertson of a relatively large format.


As for our most delicate Emily Coonan,"The Duck Pond", ca. 1910, is clearly exquisite and a hugely rare purchase opportunity. Emily Geraldine Coonan began her art studies at the age of thirteen, at Montreal’s Conseil des arts et manufactures. She studied at the Art Association of Montreal with William Brymner (1905-09), winning first prize in 1907. She exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal from 1907-33, and in 1910 at the Royal Canadian Academy. She traveled to France, Belgium and Holland in 1912 with her contemporary, Henrietta Mabel May. Coonan was the first artist to receive a traveling grant from the National Gallery of Canada (1914). She also won the Montreal Women’s Art Society scholarship (1916), and the money allowed her to travel to Europe a second time following World War I (1920).


Referring you to our Louis Muhlstock "Still Life with Peonies ", it is of the year 1939, the year when Muhlstock became a founding member of the Contemporary Arts Society along with John Lyman, Paul-Émile Borduas, Fritz Brandtner, Stanley Cosgrove, Goodridge Roberts, Jori Smith and Philip Surrey, later joined by Alfred Pellan and Jean-Paul Riopelle, to name only a selection. Interestingly, in the Lilias Torrance Newton non-selling exhibition we hosted in 1995 we had on loan from the National Gallery of Canada a portrait of Louis Muhlstock that Lilias Newton painted I believe in 1937.


In Monique Nadeau-Saumier’s catalogue written for the Musée du Québec in 1995 to accompany the Louis Muhlstock exhibition she makes mention that during the generation of our "Still Life with Peonies" the tenements where he spent his youth were the fiefdom of absent landlords whose sole preoccupation was to squeeze rents from tenants while at the same time let the properties fall into disrepair until they were no longer fit for human occupancy. Then when evacuated by municipal order the buildings would be vacant, abandoned for a couple of years before demolished. Muhlstock sometimes would set up his easel in a room. Mme Nadeau-Saumier quotes Muhlstock, "I was deeply moved and even shaken by the thought that we allowed people to live in such an environment and I believe I was successful expressing this emotion with colour. Since the presence of these people was unseen by most, these paintings are filled with traces of their existence."


Mme Nadeau-Saumier also suggests that Muhlstock’s occasional opportunities to visit the Laurentians were to inspire a number of still lifes. It becomes impossible to say with any certainty whether "Nature morte aux pivoines" is a reflection on the poverty of the neighbourhood offset by the splendid bouquet set against urban trees in full foliage or alternately a composition staged similarly to his important urban work but this time with a sense of joyfulness in the opportunity to work in the Laurentians. Professionally speaking, with specific note of the formal quality of the mouldings featured in the structure staging the floral arrangement of Peonies, I am inclined to say that this is an urban work. I met with Monique on May 14 and mentioned to her this important canvas and one which she remembered vividly from the exhibition some 15 years ago.


As many of you will know, AY Jackson was active at the origins of the Beaver Hall Group in 1920 as well as the link between them and the Group of Seven he was instrumental in founding. Signaling our most handsome Albert H. Robinson "St- Tite des Caps", 1928, Albert Robinson exhibited along with Robert Pilot and Randolph Hewton with the Group of Seven in their inaugural May 1920 exhibition. I think it safe to say he was very much responsible for Jackson’s introduction into the Charlevoix region of Quebec where they both painting and now iconic compositions. If any of you have a copy of the 1994 Retrospective Exhibition we hosted at our gallery in honoring Albert Robinson, Dad, Walter Klinkhoff, wrote the preface with his opening remarks being, ''I always held Albert Robinson in the highest esteem. He has been my personal favorite Canadian artist and I would rate him amongst the very best.'' For that show we also reprinted an excerpt from the 1956 Thomas Lee Albert Robinson booklet appropriately entitled, "A Painter's Painter". Our "St. Tite des Caps", of 1928 is an important testimony to his sense of colour and enticing composition inspired by Charlevoix County. Reviewing the Robinsons I have seen available this "season" I am most definitely of the opinion that "St-Tite des Caps" is far and away of a quality surpassing the others.


Frederick W. Hutchison is one of these yet undiscovered masters of his generation. The primary handicap to his proper recognition is the limit of the quantity of supply. Among the most vital years of his artistic career Hutchison was a teacher in art department at the College of the City of New York, ultimately becoming department head. In the introduction of FW Hutchison's exhibition catalogue for his 1949 show at Montreal's legendary Watson Art Gallery, no less an artist than Robert W Pilot wrote of Hutchison's years in New York saying that after his move there he "soon became one of the leaders of the younger group of painters. The appreciation of his work there may be measured by the many prizes which were awarded him, climaxed with the much coveted Altman Prize of the National Academy. He is a full member of the National Academy of Design in New York, and of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, and was for many years president of the Salmagundi Club in New York. .... He belongs to that fine group of Canadian painters: Morrice, Cullen, Gagnon and Jackson who so beautifully interpreted the French Canadian country side."


Research suggests that during the New York teaching years, that being from 1906 until his retirement in 1939 and at least from 1912, Hutchison's summer schedule was that he would spend a month at Hudson, Quebec where his father had originally built a country home and then for two months he would rent a home in the Baie St. Paul area where he and his wife were particularly good friends with Clarence and Lucille Gagnon. Hudson and Charlevoix account for the greatest body of subject matter in the important legacy of art work he left, with the Charlevoix compositions being the most exciting. Coincidentally, the literature on both Robinson and Hutchison shows a friendship with Suzor-Coté but both mention that Suzor's singing when they were having a joint exhibition with him distracted potential patrons to look at the Suzor-Cote's.


In previous newsletters I have unabashedly and categorically suggested that one of the most astute areas of Canadian art where one should invest is in ''Old Masters'', where Krieghoff pretty much reigns supreme, at least as concerns what is occasionally available. I continue to emphasize shrewdness of that buying position in this market. I am reprinting herewith what I wrote in our spring newsletter; "The veteran dealer Richard Feigen advises against investing in artworks—that is, unless you’re considering the pieces that have been around the longest." (Art and Auction February 2009 page 63) "Beyond the Bubbles" published on "The Opinion" page of February's edition of Art and Auction, an informative magazine owned by former Montrealer Louise Blouin, is authored by Richard Feigen, a most distinguished and senior U S based art dealer.


Just so you do not think that this is coming from a gentleman art dealer who sells only Old Master paintings, which among other fine art work he does in fact sell , you should check his web site which reads. "Richard L Feigen inaugurated his first gallery in Chicago in 1957, exhibiting 20th Century masterworks of German Expressionist and surrealist art. He was also an early champion of such artists as Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Joseph Cornell, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Ray Johnson whose estate the firm now exclusively represents."


Feigen writes, "Amid the carnage of the current economy, I am often asked about the stability of the art market. Right now, I contend that there is no safer investment. Important Old Masters paintings, of which the supply is small and shrinking, are the biggest bargains across the whole investment spectrum. Interestingly, Jeff Koons, the master alchemist, is buying Old Masters, turning dross into gold. Intense competition and high prices in the December sales in London may imply a flight from volatile investments to Old Masters. ... The quality and significance of certain Old Masters is no mystery for those with eyes. Condition and authenticity are obvious to specialists, who are on call. Museums proliferate; demand must rise."


In our market, that certainly means Krieghoff, although Paul Kane and others also if and when you can find them. "Breaking Lent'' and ''Early Canadian Settlers, Laurentians'' are two exquisite compositions by the master. We encourage an appreciation of our ''Breaking Lent'' with comparisons to an especially fine Krieghoff '' Breaking Lent'' (or ''A Friday's Surprise'') of the Thomson Collection and yet another ''Lent'', in the Collection of Power Corporation of Canada. A similar study of our highly important Cornelius Krieghoff, ''Early Canadian Settlers, Laurentians '' as compared to ''Settler's Log House'' (Art Gallery of Ontario) and ''Habitant Returning from Market, 1863'' in the Thomson Collection will confirm it not an overstatement to say that ours are definitely of a museum quality. Not the rich reds and solid browns, the masterful handling to show the consistency of the ice. (In so many of the Krieghoffs we are shown, it is there that the trained eye recognizes signs of overcleaning by earlier generations of art restorers. Amateurs who rely on UV inspection are unable to decipher where paint has been removed.)


Collectors of fine and important Canadian 19th Century masters should not hesitate buying either of these compositions. The precious, deftly executed and well preserved watercolour by William Armstrong should also be considered from this perspective. The quality of draughtsmanship and composition combined with his historical significance combine to rank this with the best of the Verners. Precious little is dedicated to the all too brief career of the fine Ottawa based artist Frank Hennessey, R.C.A. (1894-1941). Jim Burant in his A History of the Fine Arts in Ottawa makes the greatest contribution to what is available in print. He notes that Hennessey went on an exploration trip to the Artic in 1908 as an assistant naturalist and artist. Joining in 1913 the Geological Survey and during the first war, "Moved into a war related position . . . he spent the rest of his life as a civil servant, joining the Entomology Division of the Department of Agriculture in 1921 as an artist and designer".


He also cites Newton MacTavish from Arslonge "Hennessey’s experience provides a refutation to the belief, held firmly by some, that the craftsman who devotes most of his time and attention to drawing minute, carefully-controlled subjects, such as are demanded in commercial and technical work, loses his ability to produce in any other fashion..." Hennessey has long been a favorite of mine. For upwards of 15 years I have personally owned a large scale composition by him, a painting that is highly stylized , simplified in detailing, not fussy, so as to present a most contemporary work for its generation. Some of those virtues can all too easily be overlooked if for no other reason than his themes are ''classic''. With a view in mind to maybe one day hosting a non selling exhibition in honour of Hennessey I continue to collect notes on the location of others of this importance. I urge you to consider the purchase of "Approaching a Covered Bridge", a fine testimony to the best of Hennessey.


In consideration of Hennessey's talent one should not be surprised to read that he was associated with the most important Ottawa based artist of his day, Franklin Brownell. Jim Burant wrote that the two sometimes took sketching trips together, following by motor-car the Gatineau river northward into the Laurentian hills. Entirely surprising however is that Hennessey's recognition in the market place has hardly kept in line with arbitrary retail prices demanded by any number of talented contemporary artists, many of whom may not earn even a footnote in the annals of art history of the 21st Century. It is noteworthy that he exhibited with Florence McGillivray and David Milne, among others, as a member of the "Ottawa Group" which held an exhibition at Hart House in Toronto in January 1924.


According to Burant and Eva Major-Marothy, this group was intended to be Ottawa’s equivalent to Toronto’s Group of Seven and Montreal’s Beaver Hall Hill Group; it wanted "to keep alive a healthy interest in art, modern Canadian art in particular. ...The influence of this "Club" may be seen in the selection of paintings made by the jury for the Canadian section of the British Empire exhibition of Wembley later in 1924, which included works by Alfred, Norwell, Hennessey, Milne and (Kathleen) Morris". With a couple of particularly fine Frank Hennessey paintings in The National Gallery of Canada, his reputation is secure. Frank Hennessey was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London, England, a member of the Ontario Society of Artists and after seven years as an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts was subsequently made a full member.


John Little must be considered the premier Canadian urban painter active today. His legacy is a body of work painted over a career now of almost 60 years. Although his painting places are primarily Quebec City and Montreal his message is very much a documentary relevant to major cities throughout North America, that being the demolition of the inner city neighbourhoods and their resurrection committed almost exclusively to business. Little’s painterly tribute is his testimony to the original neighbourhoods where citizens lived virtually right downtown with the local grocery store at the corner, perhaps a place of worship not much further away than that were community sports teams were often sponsored by the gas station a few blocks away, essentially the way so many North American cities were until the wholesale development of highways leading from the city core to the newly developed suburbs.


The son of an architect, John Little has always reveled in the coexistence of a multitude of architectural styles from the most formal to the pedestrian within a few city blocks. Our painting, "Rue Baude" in Quebec City of 1967 is a somewhat post-impressionist style he practiced for about a decade from 1959. This is a most desirable and collectible painting by him. And the monumental canvas "Riverfront, St. Lawrence River with Schooner, Quebec", 1969 is evidence of Little's originality, integrity and conviction.


Fred Ross' '' The Yellow Dress'' (reproduced in Tom Smart's "The Art of Fred Ross, A Timeless Humanism" on pg 63) is a painting of significance by one of the Maritimes' foremost post WW ll artists, a gentleman who we have represented for some 40 years now. Ross is a recipient of the Order of Canada and just last year the Order of New Brunswick. The Beaverbrook Gallery are hosting an evening in his honour on June 3 in Saint John when their new Fred Ross acquisition ''Lady in Black'', is to be officially unveiled. Fred Ross paintings of the generation and quality of ''The Yellow Dress'' are increasingly rare in the market place, especially at prices which are perhaps what one is asked to pay for paintings by artists who will not rate so much as a footnote in the annals of Canadian art history of the 21st Century. The reputation of Fred Ross is well documented and justifiably secure.

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