Q&A: Art dealer David Heffel on auctioning off a Picasso—one of the most expensive paintings in Canadian history—for $9.1 million

Q&A: Art dealer David Heffel on auctioning off a Picasso—one of the most expensive paintings in Canadian history—for $9.1 million

In late November, the Canadian art world was buzzing when when Femme Au Chapeau—a portrait by Pablo Picasso of his muse, Dora Maar—went for $9.1 million at auction. The sale represents a new record for a non-Canadian piece of art sold in Canada. We talked to David Heffel of Heffel Fine Art Auction House about how a sale like this comes together, the booming art market and where he’d hang the painting.

How do you make a sale like this happen?

It’s a long-term process. We work on our live auctions in six-month cycles, so there’s a lot of preparation there. More than anything though, it’s about relationships that develop over time. My brother and I are second-generation art dealers—our dad opened a gallery in Vancouver in 1978. In the case of the Picasso, the previous owner is a European collector we’ve known for a number of years. They’ve sold other works with us in the past—international and Canadian works.

Why would a European collector want to sell their valuable art in Canada?

The Canadian art market has a lot going for it right now, especially when you look at the uncertainty elsewhere. The London market is suffering with Brexit. I know Paris sales last year were impacted by the yellow vests, and I don’t know how they’re surviving in Hong Kong. We have relative economic and political stability, and that’s very attractive to global buyers.

How do you drum up interest in the work? Is there a Facebook group for billionaire art buyers?

We have our website, which is our most powerful global marketing tool. There is also the traditional catalogue that is distributed globally in advance of the sale. On top of that we go on a marathon tour. The Picasso was viewed in Calgary to record attendance; it then was exhibited in Vancouver and Montreal, and finally it was on display for a week here in Toronto. We had thousands of visitors. We tripled our previous preview record with collectors from Europe and beyond. This auction was strategically aligned with a big sale week in New York, so people could take a quick flight up to Canada.

Presumably, most people who come to see a multi-million-dollar painting aren’t in a position to buy it.

Yes, but when you have a collector standing inches in front of a painting and that person begins to dream about how great that painting would look hanging in their living room, that’s the most powerful marketing we can do.

Is that where you keep a $9-million asset? In your living room?

It might be. Better on a wall than in a vault. Many of our passionate collectors have commented on the rewards they get from their art and how when they stand in front of the work they can feel the energy that was in the studio when it was created.

What can you tell us about this painting? What makes it so special?

Things we look at to determine value are the condition, the prior ownership history, the period and, of course, the subject matter. This work had all of that. I read a headline in the London Times recently that said the love affair between Picasso and Dora Maar was the most famous in art history. There is an exhibit of her photography work at the Tate in London right now, and you can see how much influence she had on Picasso. So not only do you have the magnet of this artist, you also have what is, in many minds, his most sought-after subject matter.

I read somewhere that Dora Maar was Picasso’s metaphor for Nazi occupation of Paris. How so?

Well it’s the whole Weeping Women series, which was the focus of Picasso’s artistic production during the war period including the Nazi occupation of France. The Dora Maar is dated the 13th of June 1941—the same day the the Vichy government started deporting Jews. The tears in the painting that are represented by the heavy impasto under her eyes really represent the tyranny of war for mankind. She’s not just crying for herself, she’s crying for everyone. I have been waking up and thinking about this work and I had a bit of a genesis moment thinking Picasso was able to capture the beauty of his love for Dora Maar and also to represent the turbulence of the times. And then it’s timeless because the difficulties being experienced in Paris in 1941 are still being experienced in parts of the world today.

Before the painting sold, experts were predicting somewhere between $8 and $10 million. So did the buyer get it for a steal at $9.1 million?

I think the painting sold at a fair price. You know, if you buy the best available work by any great artist at any venue, that’s the prize. Then over decades it will come to look like it was the buy of the century.

Might you tell us who made this buy of the century?

At Heffel we protect the identities of all of our buyers, so unless they authorize us, we don’t do that.

I feel like if I bought a $9-million painting I’d be shouting it from my golden rooftop.

There are all kinds of reasons people prefer to remain anonymous. Some are very modest. Others don’t want it broadcast that they have something that valuable in their home. We had a lot of nice artwork in my childhood home—pieces by Emily Carr and Lawren Harris. We weren’t allowed to bounce tennis balls against it, and I remember understanding that it was not something to brag about.

Wait, David. Are you the mystery Picasso buyer?

Ha, no. Oh no. There are no Picassos hanging in my home. My dad always said you can be a dealer or collector—not both.