Understanding Canada’s art market: a Q&A with David Heffel

David Heffel | BCBusiness

One of Canada’s leading fine art auctioneers on the secret of a successful sale, and where the art market is going

In the world of Canadian fine art, David Heffel, president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, along with his younger brother, Robert, vice-president, have a reputation as the young turks of Canada’s cozy art auction world. Founded by their father, Kenneth G. Heffel, in 1978, the South Granville gallery-cum-auction-house has emerged as a Canadian art powerhouse since the brothers took over in 1987, following the death of Kenneth. A shift in the focus from commercial gallery sales to big-ticket auctions in 1995, and then an aggressive bet in 1999 that Canadian collectors wanted to buy art online, propelled Heffel into its place as Canada’s top auction house. This May, David will take the gavel at Heffel’s 20th annual auction at the Vancouver Convention Centre; after two decades, Heffel has sold more than $325 million in art, mostly Canadian.

How do you put together a collection for auction?
We work with private collectors and corporations, sometimes over many years, to help them assess their collection and provide various services from acquisition to appraisals to disposition. A painting offered in one of our catalogues could have been on up to a 15-year journey from when we first discovered it until it works its way into being reoffered on the market.


Dead Troops Talk (1986) by Jeff Wall: US$3.6 million
SOLD: Christie’s in New York, May 2012

The Crazy Stair (1928-1930) by Emily Carr: $3.39 million
SOLD: Heffel in Toronto, November 2013

Coastal Boats near Sidney, B.C. (1952) by E.J. Hughes: $1.1 million
SOLD: Heffel in Vancouver, May 2011

Given that sort of timeline, how do you build a relationship with a potential consignor?
People come to us for different reasons—sometimes death or estate planning, or, in the case of Imperial Oil, to help them downsize the lower-value works in their art collection as they’ve reduced their office square footage in Toronto. Imperial has been collecting works since the early 20th century and has perhaps one of the finest corporate collections in Canada.

There must be some fascinating stories on how you obtain works for auction.
We always like Cinderella stories—when a collector comes across a work by inheritance or acquires it at a flea market, contacts us and discovers that it is very valuable. We were once approached by a young gentleman from Hamilton who had bought an E.J. Hughes canvas depicting Okanagan Lake for under $500 at an estate auction four or five years prior. He had it in his home and enjoyed it—and then one day, he went online and discovered how valuable it was and contacted us. The painting sold for $400,000, at a timely point in his life: his girlfriend was expecting a baby. We’ve had other instances where people had unsigned Tom Thomsons on their walls: once, our agent in Ottawa visited a home to see a panel by A.Y. Jackson. An unsigned painting hung next to it—they didn’t know who the artist was—and it turned out to be a Tom Thomson, eventually selling in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Your involvement in the art world, and running this business, began at a young age.
For Robert and I, it began as small kids—back in 1970 when my dad became very passionate about collecting Canadian art. At home, we had perhaps our most memorable Canadian painting, one of Emily Carr’s three War Canoes (Alert Bay) sketches, but also a number of Lawren Harrises. Without being aware of it at the time, we were exposed to and developed an appreciation for Canadian art. When I was 24, when my dad died, the biggest motivational factor was fear: fear that we had to make our balance sheet work, and fear that we were responsible for our own future—and that of our families.

Why did you decide to go from being a gallery to launching an auction house in 1995?
It had been discussed in Vancouver art circles that there was a need for a great auction house in Vancouver. At the time, Butterfield’s in San Francisco was having great success, gaining a notable piece of the American art market. That got us thinking about the idea. We were also often losing out to auction houses back east, Sotheby’s and Joyner’s, for Canadian artwork. And then, in December 1994, I had the birth of my first boy. I remember sitting with him on my knee and realizing that our balance sheet didn’t look that great, and we had to come up with a new business model.

As you’ve expanded eastward, have you noticed much of a difference between cities and how people buy art?
We’ve now conducted auctions in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, and each city is unique. In Calgary, the excitement is great: after every lot, people in the audience applaud. In Toronto, there’s a long history of ballroom art sales. Besides participants, we get people who regularly come to watch it as a social event year after year, whether it’s a blizzard outside or a mild winter day. In Vancouver, prior to the broadcast of our sales live on the web, we would get much greater numbers of people travelling to the city from across the country. While we don’t get as many people travelling now, we hold the auction at the Convention Centre, often with a Holland America or Princess boat in the background. We compete with the beauty of the city with our art.

Where are things headed?
In Canada, we’re starting to follow the international trend towards postwar and contemporary work. Historically, in London and New York, the dominant sales used to be the Old Masters; then, by the 1970s, they were surpassed in gross-dollar value by the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. Now the dominant sales are postwar and contemporary. The biggest sale ever was set last November at Christie’s in New York, in excess of $860 million; five or six years ago, the record sales were all under $400 million. That pattern is playing out in Vancouver, although it’s probably just in its seed years now.