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This Day in History: Art dealer’s personal collection goes up for sale

Torben Kristiansen’s blue-chip art collection featured works by Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and Jean-Paul Riopelle, among others.

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Torben Kristiansen was one of Canada’s top high-end art dealers for decades. But sometimes, he found it hard to part with paintings he loved.

“He was a big dealer,” said Robert Heffel of the Heffel Gallery. “But at some point in Torben’s career … he preferred to own paintings than to sell them.”

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He chuckles.

“He would put pretty high prices on some things, because he kind of wanted to keep them.”

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You can see some of Kristiansen’s most cherished paintings through next Wednesday, April 24, at the Heffel Gallery, 2247 Granville St., in a preview for the May 23 Heffel art auction in Toronto.

Kristiansen died in 2023 at age 92, and his family has put 30 paintings from his collection up for sale. There are so many paintings that Heffel has made it a separate sale, Legendary: The Collection of Torben V. Kristiansen.

The Kristiansen collection contained three Tom Thomsons, five works by Lawren Harris, three by Jean Paul Riopelle, two by Emily Carr and two by E.J. Hughes.

“He collected blue-chip Canadian art,” said Lauren Kratzer of the Heffel Gallery.

In 1976 Kristiansen had a show with 62 paintings from Harris’s estate. One was a striking 1946 abstract, Mountain Experience. It’s been in several exhibitions, but Kristiansen never sold it, he kept it for himself.

“These Lawren Harrises were kind of hidden away in a storage area,” said Heffel, who runs the gallery with his brother David. “When we were working on the estate, there were a lot of Group of Seven paintings in their cupboard/storage areas. There was some very good inventory he had hidden away over the years.”

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The highest estimate in the preview is $2.5 million to $3.5 million for a 1949 Riopelle “drip” painting Verts ombreuses, which was painted a year after Riopelle moved to Paris from Montreal.

“In the history of Heffel we’ve only sold one 1949 Riopelle, back in 2013,” said Heffel. “Nineteen-forty-nine Riopelles are very, very rare.”

Kristiansen was a charismatic fellow with a passion for art and a showman’s flair. During a visit to his Art Emporium gallery on Granville Street in 2010, he ushered a reporter into his office, turned out the lights and shone a small flashlight on a Riopelle abstract to show how the artist had layered his paintings.

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The 1908 Emily Carr watercolour: War Canoes, Alert Bay. sun

There are 94 works in the overall sale, which includes a section on Post-War and Contemporary Art, and a section on Canadian, Impressionist and Modern Art. The estimate for the overall sale is $15 million to $20 million.

One of the highlights is a 1908 Carr watercolour, War Canoes, Alert Bay, an early version of a 1912 oil painting that was the first Carr work to sell for a million dollars. It’s now one of the cornerstones of the Audain Art Museum collection in Whistler.

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The watercolour was done after a trip up the West Coast and before she went to France, where she was influenced by fauvism.

“She went to Alaska, and she saw First Nations villages,” said Heffel. “She decided she needed more training, so she went to France, and came back and had the artistic tool kit. But for some of that source material (for later paintings) she looked back at the watercolours she did in 1908.”

The watercolour has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It’s exhibited near an oil-on-paper version of a later Carr canvas, Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky. The canvas is in the Vancouver Art Gallery collection; the oil-on-paper has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000.

Scorned as Timber shows two slender trees that managed to survive the logging that took out the rest of a forested area. Kristiansen sold the painting to the current owners in 1974.

One of the sleepers of the auction might be an A.J. Casson oil, Frosty Morning. Painted in 1949, it depicts a serene early morning farm scene in the Cloche Mountains in northern Ontario, and has an estimate of $250,000 to $300,000.

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Another might be the 1918 Harris painting Red House, Barrie, Houses Group XXX (est. $200,000 to $300,000). It shows a spring view of a house that Harris revisited in 1924 for Pine Tree and Red House, Winter, City Painting II, which sold for $2.875 million at a Heffel auction in 2007.

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The 1946 Lawren Harris abstract painting Mountain Experience.
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The 1949 A.J. Casson oil Frosty Morning. sun
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The 1914 Tom Thomson painting Fall Woods, Algonquin Park was in the collection of the late art dealer Torben Kristiansen. sun
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Art Emporium owner Torben Kristiansen and daughter Merete Kristiansen in in their gallery in Vancouver, March 02, 2010. Photo by bill keay /Vancouver Sun
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Robert Heffel of the Heffel Gallery with some works by Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, Gordon Smith and Jean Paul Riopelle that were in the collection of the late art dealer Torben Kristiansen. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104512A

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