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Spearheaded by the Montreal-born abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle, with helping hands from his mentor, Paul-Émile Borduas and fellow Canadian painter Emily Carr, Heffel’s two-part autumn evening sale yesterday (23 November) made $17.2m (with fees; all prices in US dollars).

Canada is currently celebrating the centenary of Riopelle’s birth. A major survey of the artist is on show at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa (until 7 April 2024) and a special $2 coin (a “toonie”) has been issued featuring a portion of his monumental work L’Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg (1912).

“Tonight’s auction, coinciding with Riopelle’s 100th birthday, marks a momentous occasion in the art world,” said the auctioneer Robert Heffel, who took the rostrum alongside his brother, David. “The resounding success and record results showcased exceptional art, global collector enthusiasm, and a thriving auction market.”

Seven works by Riopelle were on offer last night, including a bronze sculpture, which in total generated a robust $8.1m (with fees)—almost half of the total evening sale. All this for an artist who once said, “I have never wanted to paint thickly—paint tubes are much too expensive”.

Topping the bill was Sans titre (Composition #2) (1951) a sizeable palette-knife-and-drip painting on canvas, measuring 127cm by 162cm. It drew bids from around the globe and was finally hammered down at $3.4m ($4.1m with fees ). That was followed by Self, a rare self portrait, which took in $2.3m ($2.8m with fees), more than four times its high estimate, prompting Robert Heffel to quip, “this is getting exciting”.

Riopelle previously made a splash at Heffel in 2017, when his painting Vent dunord (1952-53) garnered nearly $5.5m (with fees), easily surpassing the pre-sale estimate of a mere $750,000 to $1.1m. That sale is the second-most valuable ever made at Heffel, behind only Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms (1926), which shattered Canadian records in 2016 when it sold for just over $8m.

Borduas also had a big night in Toronto. His Miniatures empressees (1955) matched its high estimate, taking in $880,000 ($1m with fees), though that fell far short of his Figures schematiques, which sold for $2.6m at a Heffel sale in 2018. Another highlight of the sale’s first leg was Christopher Pratt’s oil on board painting, titled August 1939, which reached the artist’s established auction record, of $238,000 ($265,000 with fees)—well above its estimate of $128,000 high estimate.

The early sale also included a pair of Andy Warhol prints featuring the late Queen Elizabeth II and the pop star Mick Jagger, Henry Moore’s sculpture Family Group, several works by Jack Bush, and those by Alexander Colville and the ever-popular Jean Paul Lemieux. But it was E.J. Hughes who turned heads when his watercolour, Mouth of the Courtenay River, was hammered down at $279,000 ($335,000 with fees), more than six times its high estimate.

The sale’s second leg saw sparks for Emily Carr’s large oil painting Alert Bay (Indian in Yellow Blanket); works by James Wilson Morrice, A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven, Alexander Colville and Cornelius Krieghoff also come to the block during this portion of the evening. Carr’s canvas opened at $643,000 but bidding was hesitant, finally topping $740,000, before tapping out at $1m million ($1.2m with fees). And Carr’s Forest Interior, an oil on paper on board work, took in $425,000 ($511,250), easily topping its high estimate.

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