The Montreal-born painter Jean Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) stole the show at Heffel’s Spring sale in Toronto on Wednesday afternoon, when his abstract canvas Vent du nord (1952-53) sold for a record-setting $7.4m (all results in Canadian dollars, including buyer’s premium). Reaching nearly fives times its high estimate of $1.5m, the oil painting more than doubled the previous record for Riopelle and became the second most expensive work by a Canadian artist to be sold at auction.
Only the landscape painter Lawren Harris, who has recently been championed by the actor and collector Steve Martin, has garnered more at auction. Harris’s Mountain Forms realised $11.2m at Heffel’s sale in Toronto last November. There were six Harris pieces on offer this time, but none came close to the Riopelle’s sale.
Virtually all the action for Vent du nord came over the phones, with some 20 bidders from “around the world” showing interest. Comparisons have been made to the work of the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock but, as the Heffel catalogue noted, “Riopelle said that he felt no special affinities” to Pollock’s work. Vent du nord was executed in Paris, where Riopelle moved in the late 1940s, returning to Canada some 25 years later.
The sale was a big result for Heffel overall, with sales exceeding $21m, against pre-sale estimates of $10m-$14m. Moving the sale from Vancouver to Toronto seems to have been a smart decision for the auction house. “The Eastern time zone was a factor, as it makes more sense for bidders participating across the world,” vice-president Robert Heffel explained. “Moving forward, we will continue to conduct our Spring and Fall live auctions in Toronto and focus on growing the city into a world renowned art centre.”