When Duncan McLean first started appraising Inuit Art in the 1970s, ascribing values was a trick.
Bush pilots, RCMP officers, teachers, doctors and nurses, returning from adventurers into North, took carvings to the Toronto auctioneer looking to sell.
“They may have traded some cigarettes for it, or paid somebody a dollar,” McLean said.
Today, these items go for thousands of dollars. At Waddington’s annual Inuit Art Auction on Monday Nov. 8, collectors flew in from from around the world for the chance to take home – or sell off – an arctic relic of their won. A stone and ivory pencil-holder in the shape of a bear head raised eyebrows early on in the night, selling $12,000 above its appraisal price for $19,000.
“We haven’t had that much of a spread from an estimate …for a while,” said Christie Ouimet, Waddington’s Inuit Art specialist. “But the older pieces are becoming more and more rare. You’re not finding that much of it on the market.”
These days, McLean said, art comes in from gallery or auction collectors, rather than “primary collectors” who dealt with the artists themselves.
“It’s a sign of the maturing market,” he said.
Pam Lintula travelled from Boston, Mass. to watch her stone polar bear carving go up on the block. She bought it at a Toronto gallery in 1981, she said, but it was time to let it go. The high Canadian dollar and recent death of the artist Pauta Salia influenced her decision.
Appraisals on the six Pauta bears in Monday night’s auction ranged from $3,000 to $22,000.
“Priorities change,” Lintula said, on her decision to sell. “But if it doesn’t sell, I’ll pack him up and bring him home to Mass.” Waddington’s auction contained 481 lots this year, including carvings, prints and basketry.
“It’s a huge collection,” McLean said.
A large proportion was donated by an Ottawa-born collector, “C. F-S,” who bought Inuit art from galleries in Montreal while living there in the 1970s. Collectors come to Waddington’s from across North America, Europe and Asia for the event. Phone, online and absentee bidders also take part, with a live stream footage of the auction on the Waddington’s website.
For Lintula, who felt a strong connection with the bear carving, staying at home on auction night wasn’t an option.
“It’s been with me for 30 years,” she said. “I sort of felt like I should be here with the bear, to let him go.”
That personal connection, McLean said, draws collectors back to the auction year after year.
“The people who collect Inuit Art are quite passionate about it,” he said, suggesting the history and culture of the art draws people in. “Inuit Art catches people and they get hooked.”