Office design, economic setbacks spur jump in corporate art collection auctions

CALGARY – When Xerox Canada moved its Toronto headquarters into a 33,500-square-foot building in North York in August, it just couldn’t find a place for Dance of the Owl.

The square stonecut-and-stencil print of an Inuit child playing with a lively owl was made in 1978 by artist Kenojuak Ashevak, who died in 2013 at Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

But the “open, contemporary and flexible work style environment” of the company’s new offices forced it to choose a “minimal” number of works from its corporate art collection to put on its limited wall space, said spokesman John Quinn in an email.

The Ashevak print was consigned to Heffel Fine Art Auction House, which sold it for $600 in an online auction along with several other Xerox-owned works.

Vancouver-based Heffel Fine Art is the same auctioneer that raised a record $11.2 million at a live auction in Toronto of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris’ colourful Mountain Forms painting on Nov 23. The canvas was sold to an unidentified private buyer on behalf of Calgary-based owner Imperial Oil (TSX:IMO).

Despite their difference in price, both sales illustrate a growing interest by Canadian corporations to sell off their art collections, auction house owners say.

Like Xerox, Imperial’s decision to sell the Harris painting and a major portion of the art it collected over 70 years is also related to a move. It completed the relocation of some 3,000 employees from two downtown office towers to a new five-building campus in suburban Quarry Park in southeast Calgary earlier this year.

“Imperial cannot accommodate its entire artwork collection in the new space because of its open concept design, which has fewer walls,” said spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt in an email.

“A focused body of art that is representative of the regions of Canada has been selected and moved.”

On its website, Imperial says it has distributed an estimated $6 million in artworks and art sale proceeds to Canadian museums and galleries. Schmidt wouldn’t say how much art is left in the collection.

Heffel president David Heffel said some companies built large art collections in the 1970s and ’80s, encouraged in part by favourable tax laws, but the buying stalled during an economic downturn in the early 1990s.

“It wasn’t until the last five years that we started seeing a significant volume of divestment,” he said in an interview. “The legacy of those collections now are being reviewed with the reconfiguration of office footprints.”

The slow economy, especially in Western Canada, is a factor for some corporate art sellers, but Heffel said a bigger influence is the trend toward open concept office design.

There isn’t as much wall space to be decorated so many pieces of art are either going into storage or on the auction block, he said.

The rising interest from corporate sellers prompted Heffel Fine Art to set up an online auction site just for corporate sales. In two years, the site has been used to sell 5,000 to 6,000 items, said Heffel.

Rob Cowley, president of Consignor Canadian Fine Art in Toronto, founded three years ago, said that while corporations have always been active in buying and selling art, more have been selling than buying since the economic slowdown of eight years ago.

“Definitely, after 2008, we did witness an upswing in some corporations selling art for reasons related to the economy,” he said.

In its biggest corporate art sale, Consignor sold two abstract works by Toronto artist Jack Bush for about $300,000 each in an online auction for corporate owner Rothmans, Benson and Hedges Inc. in 2014.

The auction house usually holds two live auctions and five online auctions each year, Cowley said.

Heffel said that while it’s great to imagine discovering multi-million-dollar paintings in a company’s storage closet, the reality is that very few Canadian firms have art that is worth that much.

“Companies that come to mind generally are the banks in Toronto, the larger financial service providers. I think the average value of a work in a corporate collection would be under $2,500,” he said.

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