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October 2016
Large untitled panel by Jessie Oonark will attract huge interest at the upcoming auction at Walker's Fine Art and Estate Auctions. Photo courtesy of Walker's.

Large untitled panel by Jessie Oonark will attract huge interest at the upcoming auction at Walker’s Fine Art and Estate Auctions. Photo courtesy of Walker’s.

Three-and-a-half years ago in this space I wondered whether Walker’s Fine Art & Estate Auctions could take Inuit art into the mainstream of Canadian art. The Ottawa company had just taken over the mantle as the world’s premier reseller, but resident expert Ingo Hessel had tempered the thought by telling me that the creative niche had always been stable without huge spikes or troughs.

Yesterday, while preparing for another auction set for November 16, Hessel told me things had changed.

In its last two auctions, Walker’s set records, more than doubling sales in its November 2015 auction (to $1.34 million) and growing another 17 percent (to $1.57 million) in the May 2016 one. No doubt the pieces were of higher quality and therefore more desirable, but there was something else going on. I asked Hessel and Walker’s president Jeff Walker what it was.

“It really seems that Inuit art has (finally) made the crossover to mainstream art collectors. It doesn’t take many new clients to shake things up, and (these clients) are not struggling to accept what Inuit art is, not niggling to (focus) on one or two (iconic) pieces,” he says.

Walker agrees, adding that perhaps people are starting to understand how well Inuit art can pair up with almost all contemporary and traditional art styles. There’s even a little osmosis going on. “It’s friends telling friends and the (previews) we hold in Montreal, Toronto, even New York, so that collector’s can have an interaction with the beast.”

With auction sales soaring, Jeff Walker (left) and Ingo Hessel are proving that Inuit art has crossover appeal. Photo by Mike Levin

With auction sales soaring, Jeff Walker (left) and Ingo Hessel are proving that Inuit art has crossover appeal. Photo by Mike Levin

This shift means collectors now contact Walker’s first when they have pieces to sell. Which is why one of the highlight lots at the November 16 auction will be a previously unknown Migration Boat by Joe Talirunili, with a pre-auction estimate between $120,000 and $160,000 (Hessel calls them “Joe Boats”), although this one doesn’t have a letter from the artist explaining the boat’s story.

Talirunili (1893-1976) is best known as the world-record holder for a piece of Inuit art. One of his Migration Boats sold in 2007 for $290,000. In 2014 Walker’s sold a different one for just over $153,000. The sculpture now on the auction block is more idiosyncratic; the faces of the boat’s occupants are rapt with passion.

“It came to us out of the blue from a collector we didn’t know. The faces are gnarly, expressionistic, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was probably done during his last five years when he was in a carving frenzy,” says Hessel who estimates that Talirunili could have made between 20 and 25 Joe Boats, although they were only a small part of his overall output of sculptures and prints.

Mother, Child and Face by John Tiktak. Photo courtesy of Walker's

Mother, Child and Face by John Tiktak. Photo courtesy of Walker’s

Yet Hessel is more excited about some of the auction’s other pieces, which he feels are any bit as good as the Joe Boat and should take their place in Canada’s great art collections. An untitled wool and felt panel six feet across by Jessie Oonark and the 9.5-inch Mother, Child and Face by John Tiktak stand out. They are part of the 302-lot auction.

In 2014 Walker’s set a record for an Oonark piece of $60,000 and last year added a Tiktak record price of $80,000.

Both Walker and Hessel say Inuit art is only just starting to attract collectors from other stylistic niches and that there is still a ways to go before it can find funding (especially from the federal government) that will underline the statement: “Inuit art is Canadian art.”

“I have a feeling that the country is now waking up to the fact that aboriginal art is as big a contributor to Canadian culture as any other. (So far) the federal government has completely dropped the ball,” Hessel says.

While it is true that large bureaucracies are never ahead of a wave (and rarely even on it), it is dangerous to pursue the vintage idea that the popularity of art can only grow with public funding. It must stimulate people’s lizard brains in a 21st Century manner, and that usually happens by generating some level of cultural excitement.

New collectors’ markets are possible in dozens of countries, such as Russia, which has its own Inuit style, but one that is completely different from North America’s artists. Russians have, as much as anyone in the past two decades, been behind an absolute explosion in art sales for investment purposes.

Collectors on this continent fell in love with Inuit art in the 1960s and 1970s, but now they are downsizing and/or passing on. In the short-term a lot of pieces will be coming available in the $200 – $1000 range, prime collecting territory. Despite a burgeoning move into the mainstream, most pieces could be overlooked unless there is a Canadian cultural acknowledgement that can promote exposure through awareness.

Walker’s deals with older pieces: traditional on-the-land sculpture, prints and weaving, among other media. These are the name-brand works, but they are only a part of Inuit creativity. Unfortunately there has been a significant drop in output by contemporary Inuit artists, who are unable to earn a living from it. This new generation would benefit greatly by a Canadian cultural commitment.

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