“Femme assise sur un balcon” failed to sell after the highest bid of $3 million fell short of the consignor’s undisclosed reserve price. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Heffel president holds fast to global art ambitions after Matisse auction flop

TORONTO — The president of Heffel Fine Art says the auction house remains committed to its international ambitions after the flopped sale of a canvas by French artist Henri Matisse.

“Femme assise sur un balcon” had been valued between $3.8 million and $5.8 million heading into Heffel’s spring sale at Toronto’s Design Exchange on Wednesday.

But the 1919 painting failed to sell after the highest bid of $3 million fell short of the consignor’s undisclosed reserve price.

Heffel had touted the lot as the first major oil-on-canvas by Matisse to be offered at auction in Canada, with president David Heffel calling the international offering a “milestone” signifying the maturity of the Canadian art market.

The auctioneer stood by that assessment in an interview Thursday, downplaying the result as symptomatic of the vagaries of the art market.

“That milestone has been reached and will continue,” Heffel said by phone. “It’s great when the moons align, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t.”

A number of international and domestic collectors had expressed interest in the painting before the auction, he said, but for ”unknown reasons” those potential purchases didn’t pan out.

He said the consignor of the Matisse canvas, a private collector in Monaco, wasn’t too disappointed with the outcome having auctioned off two other works by Jean Paul Riopelle for a combined $902,500.

“They weren’t expecting, to quote the family’s word, ‘a hat trick,’” said Heffel. “They look forward to consigning and working with Heffel in the future.”

The auction house is taking offers for unsold works, which will be forwarded on to the consignor, who can choose whether to accept them.

Heffel doesn’t expect Wednesday’s auction will deter collectors from consigning foreign art to the auction house, noting that works by French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Tokyo-born abstractionist Larry Poons and Japanese-French painter Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita all fetched prices above their pre-sale estimates.

“For one miss at the bat, there were three home runs,” he said. “Sometimes, an opportunity is lost for a great treasure, and the future value and appreciation for any great work over time proves itself.”

The Toronto auction house has faced other challenges in positioning itself as a global player in the art world.

In 2016, a panel of experts prevented Heffel from exporting a painting by French artist Gustave Caillebotte to a U.K. purchaser on the grounds that the work was too valuable to Canadian heritage to be shipped abroad.

Heffel challenged that decision in court and won. But in April, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled the government-appointed panel was reasonable in deeming the French painting to be of such “national importance” and “outstanding significance” that it should be denied an export permit under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

Heffel’s president noted that the Matisse canvas would not have been subject to such a review, because the criteria only applies to works that have been in Canada for more than 35 years.

He said the auction house has no plans to take the case to a higher court at this time. But he hopes that Ottawa will “modernize” legislation to make it easier for international collectors to participate in the Canadian art market.

“We really want to … hold hand-in-hand our great Canadian artists with the great international masters,” he said. “To not only elevate Canada’s participation in the (international) art market, but to elevate Canadian art’s exposure in that international art market by showing a great Emily Carr next to a Picasso.”

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