Inside the sale of Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms

Inside the sale of Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms

Lawren Harris’s Mountain Forms on display at the Heffel Fine Art Auction House Fall 2016 auction. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Framed by fortune

One painting, nearly three minutes, 11.2 million dollars: Inside the sale of Canada’s most expensive artwork

By Meagan Campbell

“Here we have the stunning, glowing, magnificent and monumental 1926 Mountain Forms … by the great artist of the Americas and beyond, Lawren Harris.” The auctioneer introduces his lot to a Toronto audience, gesturing his arms as theatrically as his suit allows.

The painting on the easel has just become the highest-priced Canadian artwork ever sold, more than doubling the previous record—a portrait by Paul Kane, which fetched $5 million in 2002. Mountain Forms, created by a leading member of the Group of Seven, portrays a fictional peak in Banff, Alta. It is oil on canvas, titled and dated on the back, resting in a frame made of blue clay and gold leaf, finished with platinum. However, if viewers step back, the painting is framed more significantly by a network of auctioneers and wealthy art collectors far more intricate than Harris’s brushstrokes. Mountain Forms is not considered Canada’s highest-quality or rarest painting; that it is Canada’s most expensive hints at who and what determined its financial value.

Auctioneer David Heffel and his brother, Robert, choreographed the sale, from the price estimate and the time zone in which the auction was held, to the hotel where bidders could stay. The Heffels attracted international bidders by publishing decadent catalogues, holding online sales, and playing to their audience with strategy and charm. They commissioned the painting’s framing, paraded it in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and benefited from celebrity endorsement, solidifying Lawren Harris as an internationally recognized brand.

Most critically, the auctioneers developed deep bonds with bidders. As David Heffel begins the sale, paddles pop up from telephone operators representing collectors from around the world. A bid of $2.5 million grows to $2.6 million, edges to $2.9 million, leaps to five. The auctioneer efficiently plucks bids from the bank of phones, while noting a man in the third row, second seat to Heffel’s left. The man wears a black turtleneck and grey suit, holding paddle number 498. Heffel keeps this man in his peripheral vision, watching him for the slightest twist of a wrist. The paddle won’t leave the bidder’s lap, but in a moment, the paddle will wink.

Auctioneer David Heffel. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

David Heffel does nothing by accident. To focus attention on him at the podium, he wears a bright green tie and holds a pen from Tiffany’s (“it’s big and shiny,” he says). His phone operators follow a script written on cue cards. “Hello, this is Lauren from Heffel calling,” reads the script for one operator. “Am I speaking with [bidder’s name]? We have you bidding on Lot 118 by Lawren Harris … things are moving very quickly … are you bidding now?” Even the potential “Congratulations!” are scripted.

To cater to bidders calling from Asia, telephone operators are multilingual. The sale happens at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, a time zone convenient for bidders everywhere from Los Angeles to New York, as well as Asian clients who can bid after waking up. For bidders in the room, Heffel has accommodated them by arranging room rates at a hotel in downtown Toronto. With each additional $500,000 bid, the Heffels earn commissions from the buyer and seller totalling $140,000. To manage the stress, the night before, David went for a massage and patted his dog, a miniature dachshund named Ernie, who travelled with him from his home in Vancouver. He describes his job: “It’s like playing [the video game] NHL 2K in overtime.”

To get the bidding going, Heffel might announce a fictitious bid. Called bidding “off the chandelier,” he may pretend to have bids from people who placed offers ahead of time. Such bidding is common up until the bid reaches the reserve price, which is the minimum sale price allowed by the seller—in this case, Imperial Oil, which is auctioning off Mountain Forms from its corporate collection because its new office will not have enough wall space. However, chandelier bidding above the reserve price is illegal under the Provincial Auctioneers Act (auctioneers in Ontario must take a two-week course and pay $995 to get a licence), and it could also leave the auctioneer with no buyer at all. If the painting found no buyer, its perceived value would plummet for future auctions; works that don’t sell at an auction are considered “burned.”

Heffel also boosts the price with his charm. He and Robert, president and vice-president of the Heffel Fine Art Auction House, have refined their public speaking with Toastmasters. “They actually get eyeball to eyeball with the bidder, coaxing them on for the next bid,” says Alan Bryce, collector and author of Art Smart: The Intelligent Guide to Investing in the Canadian Art Market. “‘You know you want it’—I’ve heard that,” says Bryce, who frequently attends Heffel auctions. “These guys are pros. They’ve got a great audience. They’ve got great paintings and they know exactly what they’re doing.”

Publicly, the Heffels estimated the price of Mountain Forms to be $3 million to $5 million. However, the brothers quietly expected to garner at least $6 million and as much as $10 million from the sale. On average, they sell artwork for double the low estimate, which is deliberately set low to attract bidders, although not so low as to make bidders reluctant to pay more. This track record reflects well on the auction house, one of three major houses in Canada, along with Ritchies and Waddington’s. “We drove Sotheby’s out of Canada,” says Robert, referring to the prominent auction house that stopped holding Canadian live auctions in 2013.

Mountain Forms was strategically placed as lot No. 118 in the series of sale items. It was not placed as the grand finale item because the Heffels needed to ensure the wealthy bidders who didn’t win the painting could still put their money toward second-choice or third-choice artworks. The record-setting price would also instantly increase the perceived value of Harris’s other works. The painting was not placed as the opening sale item either, because such a high price could deter less wealthy bidders from the rest of the auction. “It’s like running a symphony,” David said when preparing in October. “You don’t want to start out with all your oomph, then finish off with a whimper.”

Lot No. 118 was also chosen for the sake of advertising—and superstition. By custom, auction catalogues present artworks in the order they come up for sale. The number 118 meant Mountain Forms appeared near the middle of a catalogue, where viewers were likely to see it when opening the book. Further, when the most expensive painting in the world went up for sale—Les Femmes D’Alger by Pablo Picasso, for $179 million—the seller demanded that Christie’s Auction House in New York reorder its auction to sell the painting as lot No. 8 (since eight was taken, it became 8A). Bidders at Heffel auctions often request paddles containing the same digit. In the art world, based on Chinese culture, the number eight is lucky.

Bids roll in by phone during the auction. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

When bidding reaches $8 million, bidder 498 awakens. He is currently the only bidder on the Harris painting in the room of about 400 people (many of whom are bidding on other works)—the rest of the bidders for lot 118 are on the phones. To signal a bid, he slants his paddle slightly to the left in his lap. Heffel, hyper-aware, spots it through the rows. “Eight-five in the room now,” the auctioneer announces. “Eight million five hundred thousand.”

The bidder is Ash Prakash, a prominent Canadian art dealer who operates largely beneath the radar. Now in his 70s, he moved from India to the U.S. at age 15 and went on to become an official in the Prime Minister’s Office under Pierre Trudeau. He counts the Trudeaus and Mulroneys as personal friends, and he buys artwork on behalf of people such as Donald Sobey, Toronto plastic surgeon Michael Weinberg, movie producer Jake Eberts and Canada’s richest family, the Thomsons. Although Prakash has spoken publically about his work in the past, he has no company website and does not call himself a dealer. He declines to comment on the identity of his client for Mountain Forms.

The competing bidder is also anonymous, but could be a corporation or public institution. Similar to Imperial Oil, Petro-Canada, Four Seasons Hotels, Air Canada and CIBC all have extensive corporate art collections. Even McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada owns a painting by Alex Colville. Public galleries and museums, which have budgets for buying at auctions, almost always bid by phone. “You don’t want people to know,” says Charlie Hill, former curator of the National Gallery of Canada, “either because there will be more competition or people will bid you up.”

More likely, however, the phone bidder is an affluent individual outside Canada. Foreign interest in Canadian art is surging, with more than one-fifth of the dollar sales from Canadian paintings last year attributed to auction houses overseas, in New York, Paris, Milan, London and Belgium, according to a composite art sales index. The Heffels’ record for an online sale went to a buyer in Taiwan, who resold the painting a year and a half later. In the catalogue for Mountain Forms, the Heffels outline exchange rates for the U.S. dollar, British pound, Hong Kong dollar and Japanese yen.

Sellers don’t necessarily care who buys their paintings. Imperial Oil declined to comment on the future of Mountain Forms, but Peter Brown, who sold other Lawren Harris paintings at the auction—including Mount Robson at Berg Lake for $1.8 million—said in the month before the auction, “Whoever buys it, buys it. I don’t care. I hope it goes to people who show it and appreciate it. If I was worried about it staying in Canada, I would’ve done it through a private sale.” Some people believe Mountain Forms belongs in public spaces, but Robert Heffel argues that museums and galleries only exhibit around one per cent of their collections at a time. “It’s a fallacy that paintings in private hands don’t get seen,” he says. “People lend to exhibitions. They get enjoyed every day. People have friends over. Paintings in museums don’t get seen.”

After a $9-million bid over the phone, Heffel looks to Prakash to counter. Each word on the phone, each twist of Prakash’s wrist, represents an increment of half a million dollars. Art critics have referred to live auctions as “the ego market,” in which prices become detached from the quality and rarity of an artwork, which would determine the price in a gallery. Prakash tells Maclean’s, “value is irrelevant almost.” Rather, he says the bidding is based on “determination.”

Desire for Mountain Forms is partly due to the branding of Lawren Harris’s name. Of Canadian artwork sold in the last 50 years, six of the top 10 most expensive were Harrises, each having sold for more than two million dollars, according to the Canadian Art Sales Index. “He’s the cultural manifestation of what the Canadian soul is all about,” says Prakash. The artist’s name was also publicized by actor Steve Martin, an avid art collector, who curated an exhibition of 30 of the painter’s works, called Lawren Harris: The Idea of the North. The exhibit travelled through Boston and Los Angeles, ending in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Mountain Forms is almost too large for the easel in the auction room. In the 1920s, Harris was experimenting with the concept of scale, making the painting 1.5m by 1.7m, costing the auctioneers around $10,000 to frame. The work is praised for its colours—even the snow contains a prism of tints—and its contours, by which the terrain of a mountain is simplified into the essence of one. It has been authenticated by Harris’s daughter, Margaret Knox, who inherited many of his works.

However, art connoisseurs say the painting is not the highest quality work in Canada. When Mountain Forms was exhibited in Toronto in 1926, critics deemed the painting obscure, with one columnist describing the summits as “teeth of cosmic lime.” Today, critics find the painting cold or boring, associating it with the principal’s office in elementary schools, where it commonly hung in the ’70s next to portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. Unlike Harris’s better-known paintings such as The Old Stump, Lake Superior, Mountain Forms rarely gets mentioned in books about the artist, such as Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris’ Life and Work by Peter Larisey, an art historian. Before seeing Steve Martin’s exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Larisey hadn’t seen Mountain Forms. “I would not call it his best painting,” says Larisey. “Stronger pieces are Isolation Peak and perhaps Maligne Lake. I think the others are more pictorially related to a site, and I think people feel more at home in them.”

Harris did not set out to create a product, and in his lifetime couldn’t even get his artwork into tourism brochures. He never wanted for money, thanks to his wealthy family who enjoyed a fortune after his grandfather invented a farm machine. Instead of offering a living, art helped him heal from trauma. When his friend Tom Thomson drowned in 1917 and his younger brother died in the First World War, Harris coped by painting, particularly landscapes. He convinced railway companies to transport his friends in a boxcar, beginning with the Algoma Central Railway. Inviting friend James A. MacDonald, he wrote: “Give great gobs of thanks to Allah! … We have a car waiting [for] us on the Algoma central!!!”

Later, Harris valued artwork as a way to form Canadian identity. His style broke from the portraits fashionable in Europe at the time, in favour of landscapes and abstractions. “If we imitate the style and mood of the creators of other lands … we permit our powers to wither,” Harris wrote in 1922 in The Canadian Bookman. “We are about the business of becoming a nation and must create our own background.”

Mountain Forms is a composite of mountains he discovered while hiking in the Rockies, lugging sketchbooks, tubes of oil paints and 10 days worth of teabags and mixed-grain cereal at a time. With fellow Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson, he ventured as far as a marathon some days, borrowing a horse and an 18-foot canoe, up one summit so steep that Jackson slid out the tent flap at night and rolled down the terrain, where Harris found him in the morning, still fast asleep.

For Harris, the most intrinsic value of a painting was that it served as a document of his artistic practice. Doing art, he suggested, was the elevation of humans from everyday life—what he described in his journal as, “the joyous adventure of the creative spirit in us toward a higher world.”

“All works that have in them an element of joy,” Harris wrote, “are records of this adventure.”

Mountain Forms. (Lawren Harris)

Debit, Visa and MasterCard are accepted forms of payment by the Heffel Fine Art Auction House. Corporate and personal cheques are also valid, but bank wire transfers are preferred. The money must be transferred from the buyer to the auction house by 4:30 p.m. on the seventh day following the auction, with the threat of legal action for failure to comply. Most importantly, the transaction must include the buyer’s premium of 18 per cent of the bidding price. These stipulations are outlined in the catalogue in Prakash’s lap, meaning his next bid—for $9.5 million—will actually cost him an extra $1.7 million.

“Nine-five in the room,” the auctioneer announces. “At nine-five in the room, and against you on the phones, it’s nine million, five hundred thousand in the room.” The operator holds the paddle. The phone bidder hesitates. “Would anyone else like to join in?” Heffel asks. “We don’t want anyone with under-bidder’s remorse tomorrow morning.” Audience members look left-right-left between competitors, tennis style.

“In the room at nine million five hundred thousand,” declares Heffel. “One quick crack of the hammer, and one giant leap in the Canadian art market. Selling now.” Three minutes, 23 seconds after the bidding opened, the hammer hits the podium. Applause flares for Prakash, as if he were winning the artwork rather than paying for it. Atop the bid and buyer’s commission, the painting’s new owner will have to pay for insurance and maintenance, which could come to $90,000 per year. Prakash doesn’t clap, but rather annotates his catalogue, and later slips from his seat and leaves.

Mountain Forms may not see the public again. At the end of the night, the snow-tipped peaks are packed into a cardboard box by men in white gloves. The painting is no longer just a record of Harris’s artistic adventure but also a record-setting prize: $11.2 million CDN after the buyer’s commission.

Taxes and shipping not included.

Reporters: Meagan Campbell
Editor: Alison Uncles
Art director: Stephen Gregory
Director of Photography: Liz Sullivan
Assistant editor, digital: Nick Taylor-Vaisey
Published: Nov. 25, 2016