$5.0 Million: A rare painting by Paul Kane sets a new record for Canadian Art

"$5.0 Million: A rare painting by Paul Kane sets a new record for Canadian Art"
By Judy Stoffman
Toronto Star
Feb 26, 2002

As the gavel fell last night, the crowd of 500 in the sweltering room erupted in a round of applause.

Fierce bidding for Kane's Scene In The Northwest: Portrait, executed in the winter of 1845 – 1846, reached $4.6 million in a three-way duel among two American buyers on the telephone and Winnipeg art dealer David Loch, who bid with a subtle nod of the head from the back of the room. A fourth buyer dropped out of the bidding at $900,000.

When the dust settled, Loch—who's known to represent media mogul Ken Thomson at art auctions—got the prize. Adding in the buyer's premium (15 per cent on the first $50,000 and 10 per cent on the remainder), Kane's portrait will actually cost $5,062,500—10 times its pre-sale estimate.

The highest amount previously paid for a Canadian painting was $2.2 million for Lawren Harris's Baffin Island, purchased last year by Thomson. He exhibits his extensive collection at his gallery in The Bay's Queen Street store.

In the auction house tradition, the name of the buyer of the Kane was not revealed. But Thomson—a voracious collector—was seen at the auction preview on Friday and again in the room last night.

"I already have eight small sketches by Kane," he said at the preview.

Last night, he wouldn't confirm whether he was the buyer. "All I'll say is that I was at the auction and witnessed it," Thomson told The Star's Michael Traikos.

"I won't say whether or not I won it. I made up my mind that I wasn't going to comment."

The auction took place at Ritchie's auctioneers on King St. E. Ritchie's formed a partnership last year with Sotheby's to enable the liquidation of entire estates, not only fine art.

Thomson's deep pockets would keep the painting from leaving Canada, which would have been permissible in this case. Canadian laws prohibit the export of culturally significant works if they have been in the country for at least 35 years, until a Canadian buyer can be found. The Kane portrait arrived here only last year.

The highest amount ever paid for a Kane painting previously was $525,000 in 1999, for an oil portrait of an Indian titled Manngwudaus.

Kane was Canada's first well-known artist, the most celebrated 19th century artist/explorer, who painted Indians throughout the west before they began to lose their characteristic dress and customs through contact with Europeans. Most of his work is in public collections including the Royal Ontario Museum, the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Stark Museum in Texas.

The portrait sold last night was of Kane's friend Capt. John Henry Lefroy, who had recommended to Sir George Simpson—superintendent of the Hudson's Bay Co.—that Kane be allowed to travel with the company's fur traders on their canoe fleets to the west.

Lefroy was a scientist and a military man who came to Toronto in 1942 to study Earth's magnetism. His calculations established the site of the magnetic North Pole. His scientific equipment is placed on the sled in the painting, which was done in Kane's Wellesley Street studio, with the winter background painted in later. Lefroy's assistant, who was not in town at the time, is shown in the background with his back to the viewer.

"It's a great piece of Canadiana," Loch said after the sale.

A copy of this painting, likely by Kane's wife Harriet Clench, is in the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. Adding to the painting's value was its freshness on the market. It has been owned by Lefroy's British descendants for some 150 years, and has not come to auction before. Lefroy also has relatives in Canada who do not stand to benefit from the sale.

The evening realized a total of $6.8 million, or more than three times the total of Sotheby's sale in the spring of 2001. Only 10 per cent of pictures (by value) went unsold.

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