Art dealer Robert Heffel has done countless house calls to check out someone’s collection.
But he was stunned when he walked into the late Joan Stewart Clarke’s house in West Vancouver.
“Kate (Galicz) and I went to the house, and we were blown away,” he said with a laugh. “Our eyes were (bulging) wide open. We were pretty amazed that these paintings were here.”
The paintings were from a collection of international modern art few people knew about, aside from her friends and family.
There were works by American abstract expressionist and colour field painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis and Jules Olitski, as well as paintings by Canadian artists Paul-Emile Borduas, Jean Paul Lemieux and William Goodridge Roberts.
The showstopper in the collection is a six-by-four-foot wide work by American Robert Motherwell.
“Motherwell is one of the giants of American modern art,” explains Heffel. “He was one of the youngest members of what’s known as the New York School in the 1950s, along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.”
August Sea #5 is a blue acrylic painting with a couple of slashes of charcoal, from what’s known as Motherwell’s “post-painterly abstraction” period. It will go up for sale at the June 1 Heffel art auction, and has a pre-auction estimate of $2 million to $2.5 million.
But that’s probably low. A similar painting — August Sea #4 — sold for US$2.95 million at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2019.
The Motherwell is on display at an auction preview through April 25 at the Heffel Gallery at 2247 Granville Street.
There are six Jean Paul Riopelle abstract paintings in the auction, including 1953’s Sans titre, which pops placed against a Group of Seven-type blue wall in the front room of the Heffel Gallery. It carries a pre-auction estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million.
“Typical of Riopelle, you’ve got almost every colour under the rainbow (in the painting),” said David Heffel, who runs the auction with his brother. “But the blues really come out as the stronger pigment,” especially against the blue wall.
There is also a striking 1929 Lawren Harris sketch of deep blue mountains illuminated by shafts of light from above. The small oil on board is called Mountain Sketch, and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.
“This is a blockbuster,” said David Heffel. “There’s a related canvas for this in the Thomson collection at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). It’s interesting with the spheres of light, although this is far more geometric.”
Among the sale’s B.C. content is a 1946 Jack Shadbolt watercolour of Thurlow Street in the West End ($25,000 to $35,000), a Molly Bobak painting of Galiano Island in 1942 called Santa Arrives ($70,000 to $90,000) and an E.J. Hughes painting from his acclaimed late 1940s to early ’50s period, Low Tide at Qualicum Beach ($300,000 to $500,000).
There is also a 1935 Emily Carr oil, Singing Trees ($500,000 to $700,000), which Gerta Moray eloquently describes in the catalogue: “two young fir trees fizz with energy against the billowing flow of a dark forest.” It’s in the downstairs gallery at Heffel, behind one of the largest and most beautiful of Carr’s Klee Wyck ceramic sculptures, Orca Platter ($10,000 to $15,000).
The platter features an indigenous motif of an orca whale in grey, black and orange bordered by green and black. Carr made ceramics to sell to tourists when money was scarce. The original owner of the platter, Kate Mather, who operated a gift shop in Banff, encouraged Carr to start making pottery.
The auction will have three sessions, Post War and Contemporary Art; Canadian, Impressionist and Modern Art; and the Joan Stewart Clarke Collection.
Clarke assembled her collection in Toronto in the 1970s and ’80s. She was once married to Thomas Alexander Rigby, who owned Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! before Jimmy Pattison.
She moved to West Van with her second husband, Larry Clarke, the founding chairman of Spar Aerospace, which built the famous Canadarm, a robotic arm used in space.
“She was one of the first collectors of modern art in Canada in the ‘70s,” said Robert Heffel. “She had a fantastic eye.”
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