Inside the private art collection of auctioneer David Heffel

By Vibhu Gairola| Photography by Brittany Carmichael

David Heffel was destined to collect art. “My dad was a collector, and as kids, my brother, Robert, and I would always play near these fabulous art pieces,” says Heffel, president of Heffel Gallery Ltd., known for its fine-art auctions. Currently, the 150-piece collection he shares with his wife, Patsy, stretches across multiple homes, offices and a warehouse. Here, a look at some of the works in their Shangri-La condo.

About 1789—The Death of Mirabeau
Tony Scherman • 1997

On the wall of the dining room, there’s a giant oil painting of peonies. Heffel bought his first Scherman piece in 1989—it’s currently mounted in his house in Vancouver—and has been a fan of the contemporary figurative artist since. “This was on auction, and I bought it spontaneously,” Heffel says. “I once asked Tony why he paints peonies all the time, and if I remember correctly, he said, ‘It’s because they don’t last that long.’ In his studio, he has some faux peonies made of plastic to help him with his compositions.”


Salvage Abstraction (Index from Perpetual Blue)
James Lahey • 2013/2014

On the wall opposite Scherman’s peonies, there is a bracing, solid pop of blue by James Lahey. “He and I are both 55. He likes motorcycles, and I collect motorcycles—I have about eight. So he sounds like my type of guy,” says Heffel. He bought this piece through his own auction house when one of Lahey’s ex-girlfriends consigned it. Heffel says cobalt blue works like this sell well at contemporary art exhibitions in Vancouver, as well as in Quebec. “I don’t know if it’s a West Coast thing, where they maybe just don’t see blue skies as much as they’d like, but our theory is that it’s a colour they’re drawn to, subconsciously or consciously. I’ve also found myself with a lot of blue paintings.”


Field of Dreams, Dyersville, Iowa
Stephen Wilkes • 2000

Above the television, a photo of a serene baseball diamond in Iowa highlights the Heffel family’s connection to the sport: Heffel’s father played for the Cincinnati Reds’ triple-A foreign team to put himself through university. But David remembers just one time he threw around a baseball with his dad. “I think he was so emotionally broken that he got so close but didn’t make it into the big leagues. His team manager had told him, ‘You can’t hit the curveballs, so you’re never going to make it to the bigs.’" So David and his brother grew up playing hockey instead. He eventually encouraged his own sons to play baseball, though, and his youngest now plays for Concordia University.



Morris Victorious
Joe Fafard • 1987

This table, made of glass and a cast bronze gorilla, is by the seminal Saskatchewan sculptor Joe Fafard. In the mid-’80s, he walked into Heffel’s gallery in Vancouver and introduced himself. He’d just been commissioned by TD Bank to do a series of seven bronzed cows called The Pasture, and he asked Heffel to watch him bronze the first cow. “To see the ancient alchemy of bronze being melted, the technicians working in asbestos suits, the cherry red fire and molten bronze inside the furnace, the pouring and the sparks—it was like discovering religion for the first time,” says Heffel. He bought this piece the following year. “I’m just fascinated by his gorilla in the jungle, because it’s not very Canadian.”


The City from St. Paul’s
John Hartman • 2008

On a solid pillar in the middle of the north-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows, Heffel hangs a painting of a contrasting cityscape: London. “It caught my attention because the aerial, bird’s-eye view is reminiscent of the view up here,” he says. “When our doors and windows are closed, everything becomes really quiet. In that moment, this piece often helps give me a moment of reflection, because active urban scenes can actually be very overwhelming.”


Oyster Bay, Home of Teddy Roosevelt
Joyce Wieland • 1963

Heffel bought this Joyce Wieland painting, which hangs in his study, after seeing a snapshot of it from an online auction. Wieland, once married to the famous Michael Snow, was an important Toronto artist and painter in her own right, even if her work doesn’t appear as often. “I like this work because it transcends region.” It could easily be on Lake Ontario, or from Vancouver or Nova Scotia. “It has a bit of a pop art aspect to it with the stars and the stripes, the cartoon dialogue box and the arrow. And there a lot of blues and navy shades I might have been subconsciously drawn to as well.”


Mel Yap • 2013

In the corridor leading to the study, there’s a piece by Vancouver photographer Mel Yap, which Heffel purchased from a show called Mess/Age. It depicts an old woman tearing a poster promoting Simon Fraser University’s contemporary art show off the walls of Vancouver’s old Woodward’s building. A note from Yap on the back of the piece says he was trying to “show how the layers of the image mimicked the transitioning neighbourhood.”


Giuseppe Fontanarosa • 2012

Because the Shangri-La is so close to OCADU, Heffels can easily walk to grad shows to pick up new pieces for the collection. That’s where he found this painting. “We went to the show with the purpose to buy a work from a young emerging artist,” he says. “We toured the whole show, and this one just caught our attention. The artist, Joe, was articulate and charismatic, and he displayed the qualities I like to see in young painters—enthusiasm and potential. It sparkles in the light and it only cost $400. My philosophy is you don’t have to spend a lot of money to buy a great painting.”



Guido Molinari • 1992

There’s more blue in the bedroom. This painting, by the late Quebec artist and Concordia art professor Guido Molinari, lends an air of regal comfort to the otherwise bright and sunlit room. “In Quebec, he was a star,” Heffel says. “At his retrospective exhibit at the Contemporary Museum in Montreal during the latter stages of his life, he literally had 15 elderly women following him. They were art groupies.” Heffel also recalls visiting Molinari’s Montreal studio many years ago. When he knocked on the door, a young woman with red lipstick answered the door. “When Molinari showed up, he had lipstick kisses all over his face!"


Kate Upton
Tony Scherman • 2013

A portrait of model Kate Upton keeps the Heffels company in the washroom. He commissioned it from Tony Scherman a few years ago. “My boys and I like Kate Upton,” he says. “And I knew Tony would like doing it. He did a great job—except for one thing. When I first went to see the work with my family, he had the eyes coloured wrong! I said, ‘Tony, she’s got green eyes!’ So he changed it. Needless to say, he wasn’t looking at Kate’s eyes.”


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May 25, 2017

This post has been updated from an earlier version.


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