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Much ado was made over the presence of a Robert Motherwell acrylic and charcoal on canvas from the early 1970s at the major Heffel spring sales, which took place yesterday (1 June) online and over the phone from auction rooms in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, where live sales are typically held. It was the first major work by the renowned US Abstract Expressionist, perhaps best known for his Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1965-67) at the Museum of Modern Art, to go on the block in Canada.

Robert Motherwell, August Sea #5, 1972

The 72in by 48in Motherwell, August Sea #5 (1972), from the collection of the late Vancouver collector Joan Stewart Clarke, was estimated at C$2m-C$2.5m ($1.5m-$1.9m). Though it did top the low estimate with premium, realizing C$2.1m ($1.7m), it had to take a back seat to Jean-Paul Riopelle’s Sans titre (Untitled) from 1953, which Heffel vice-president and auctioneer Robert Heffel rightly referred to earlier in the day as “the showstopper”.

The approximately 29in by 39in oil on canvas work was knocked down at C$2.4m ($1.8m), or C$2.8m ($2.2m) with fees in the late afternoon portion of the sale, which focused on post-war and contemporary art. That was well above its pre-sale estimate of C$1m-C$1.5m.

It was one of six works on offer by the Montreal-born Riopelle, who moved to France in 1947, working both there and in his native Quebec until his death in 2002. The centenary of his birth is just over the horizon in October of next year.

In all, the three-session Heffel sale, which culminated with the Clarke collection, took in C$16.5 million ($13m) with fees, with interest coming from around the world. Though celebratory after the sale, a delighted Heffel seemed already to miss the various works, saying, “To spend time with so many artworks of such high calibre this season was truly an honour for our team across the country.”

Though the marquee Motherwell work was a first in Canada, the artist had several ties to Toronto, having visited the city in 1970, where he spoke at the local art college, then known as OCA (the Ontario College of Art). He showed at the David Mirvish Gallery in 1973 and was featured at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in 2011, some two decades after his death.

Paul-Émile Borduas, Fanfaronnade, 1954

Of the nine works on offer from the Stewart Clarke collection, Paul-Emile Borduas’s Fanfaronnade (1954) generated the most action, easily topping its high estimate of C$90,000, taking in C$200,000 ($158,000) or C$241,250 ($190,000) with fees. Borduas is notable for having schooled Riopelle, even pointing him to abstraction.

Alex Colville, Coastal Figure, 1951

Other late afternoon highlights were Alex Colville’s Coastal Figure (1951), which hit C$1m just seconds after bidding opened, eventually hammering at C$1.3m ($1m) or C$1.5m ($1.2m) with fees. Discounting the premium, that was exactly double its low estimate of C$650,000. Meanwhile, Jack Bush’s acrylic on canvas Swing Gay (1976) took in C$600,000 ($474,000) or C$721,250 ($570,000) with fees, double its high estimate.

Rita Letendre, Reflet d’Eden, 1961

Not to forget Rita Letendre’s large oil Reflet d’Eden (1961), which hammered down at C$375,000 ($296,000). With fees the price came to C$451,250 ($356,000), a record for the late artist and some four times its low estimate. David Hockney’s lithograph Rain (1973) realized C$140,000 ($110,000), or C$169,250 ($133,000) with premium, something of a surprise as it was appraised at just C$25,000-C$35,000. Interest in the beloved British artist’s work may have been buoyed by his showstopping, mural-sized painting in the AGO’s group exhibition I Am Here: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces.

Emily Carr, Singing Trees, around 1935

Early evening followed with the sale of Canadian, Impressionist and Modern art. Ever-popular Lawren Harris got things rolling with the smallish Mountain Sketch (around 1928), which garnered C$850,000 ($671,000), C$1,021,250 ($807,000) with fees, easily topping its high estimate of C$700,000. Harris’s oil painting Algoma (around 1950) grabbed another C$450,000 ($355,000), or C$541,250 ($427,000) with fees. But it was Emily Carr who stole the show yet again. Her canvas Singing Trees (around 1935), with a low estimate of C$500,000, started slowly but soared to just over C$1m, or C$1.2m ($997,000) with fees, topping the session.

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