David Heffel on Why He Loves Canadian Art
David Heffel talks career highlights, and offers his picks for Canada's best museums.
Heffel Fine Art Auction House specializes in works by important contemporary and historical Canadian artists. Started in 1978 by their father, Kenneth G. Heffel, brothers David and Robert Heffel have brought the auction house to a global audience by introducing heffel.com in 1999, an online auction division of Heffel Fine Art Auction, while also regularly conducting live auctions of fine Canadian art and postwar and contemporary art in Vancouver during the spring, and in Toronto in the fall.
Heffel’s spring 2015 auction will be held on May 27. Previews start in Montreal on May 7, and travel through Montreal until the auction date. Leading works by Canada’s premier artists will be available, including works by Emily Carr, Paul Emile Borduas, and Clarence Alphonse Gagnon, among others.
Tell us about your background in art and what led you here.
My brother Robert and I had a unique childhood. We grew up with phenomenal Canadian works on the walls of our home. Our father, Kenneth Heffel, was a one-time catcher with the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise before co-founding a successful steel and fabrication company. As his business grew more successful, my father began collecting important Canadian art. In 1978, my father turned his passion for art into his vocation and opened Kenneth Heffel Fine Art Inc. on Vancouver’s established South Granville Gallery Row.
In high school, I began working at the gallery as a janitor and amateur gallery photographer after school. During my university studies, I expanded my work commitment to the gallery and took on the responsibility of shipping and receiving. Both Robert and I studied art history at the University of British Columbia. Our father suddenly passed away in 1987, and Robert and I took over the business, continuing to build the Heffel legacy.
What has been the highlight of your career so far? What has surprised you the most?
We’ve been in the auction business a long time now, and it’s been a demanding journey. While others have been retreating from the Canadian art market, it’s been our mission to continue to grow and develop it both nationally and beyond. A major highlight has been watching our business, and the Canadian art market as a whole, thrive, and seeing the way our team has expanded and flourished. It’s both rewarding and inspiring to have such confidence in the people you work with every day.
How do you feel before a sale? Do you have any pre-sale rituals?
It’s funny—even after all these years, I still get nervous before our live auctions. My brother Robert and I are up at the podium throughout the sale; there are people on the phones with absentee bidders, as well as those in the audience raising paddles and making less obvious signals to indicate bids, so there are a lot of things to pay attention to. Traditionally, I go to for a good massage the night before to ensure a great night sleep, and I make sure not to have a cup of coffee on auction day until after the sale has started, to pace my physical energy and mind.
How would you describe the atmosphere of an auction house sale? How has this environment changed over the years?
The ambience during our live sales has changed drastically over the years. Traditionally, the majority of the action all took place inside the room. People would travel from all over to raise their paddles and bid on the works. Now, thanks to advancements in technology, people can bid from their office, bed, or beach chair. There is a greater balance of activity inside and outside the room, so while some sales may not look full, there are a huge number of people logging in from across the globe. Today, numerous high-value lot sales are generated by telephone bidding and by bidders watching the live stream of the sale on heffel.com. Technology allows for greater anonymity without compromising one’s ability to feel captured by the energy in the room.
What was your proudest recent consignment?
In the fall of 2013, Heffel facilitated the consignment and ultimate sale of the most valuable painting by Canadian art legend Emily Carr, and, moreover, by any female Canadian artist ever at auction. We had been working diligently for nearly a decade to have Carr’s The Crazy Stair (The Crooked Staircase) entrusted to Heffel for our auction by the Vancouver Club. Following the $3.4 million sale, Michael Audain, Canadian art philanthropist and collector, proudly announced that he had placed the winning bid, and that its home would be in the new Audain Art Museum, opening in Whistler in fall 2015.
Of course, a record auction sale is always exciting, but to know that such an important piece of Canadian culture has found a great home and will continue to be available for public appreciation is incredible.
What are your favorite museums and/or galleries?
This is a tough one. Picking a favorite museum is like picking a favorite artist—there are too many great ones, yet somehow never enough!
I’m fortunate that my career allows me to travel fairly extensively—it’s the best part about having offices across the country and clients around the world. I’m proud of the fantastic museums and galleries we have here in Canada. The Art Gallery of Ontario is among the most phenomenal museums in the world. The architecture is outstanding, and has become a landmark in downtown Toronto, a city with world-class cultural appeal. My other two Canadian favorites are the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Aside from the ever-growing permanent collections, all three of these impressive establishments have ever-changing ranges of Canadian and international exhibitions sought after by museums around the globe.
Looking outside of Canada, a front-runner for me is The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Even just walking through the doors makes you feel a breath of creativity. We’re honored to have been chosen to sell an incredible painting by Jean McEwan that was de-acquisitioned from the MoMA’s permanent collection. The commanding lot will be available in our spring live auction on May 27.
I also want to highlight both the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Guggenheim, for its inspiring design and breathtaking facility, designed by Frank Gehry, a fellow Canadian, and the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography for its collection of many of the best artifacts from the Northwest Coast First Nations.
What do you need to be a good dealer?
In my opinion, being a good dealer takes a trained and confident eye, passion, and stubbornness. Success in any field is like trust; it’s not something you start off with but something you hope to achieve with years of dedication and integrity. We’ve been in this business a very long time, and it’s taken hard work and patience to get to where we are. I’ve always believed that being an art dealer is more of a lifestyle than a vocation. It’s really 24/7 rather than 9 to 5, and it becomes part of who you are, not just what you do for a living.
If you could have dinner with any three artists, living or dead, who would you choose?
Firstly, I would love to sit silently at a dinner with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to listen to them discuss their competing theories and better understand their relationship. It’s been said that the two were often competing for the same women. It would be highly entertaining to mediate their debates and passionate conversation on all topics.
Another dream would be to have a beer with Marcel Duchamp. He’s an artist I’ve always been fascinated by, and feel there is great mystery and intrigue to be divulged. It would be great learn from Duchamp firsthand, beyond what is available in art history books.
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