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Inuit Art Auction

John Norris | May 6th, 2013

An artist from Arviat known only as Susan carved her Mother and Child of stone. It has a simplified, proud stance and rightfully earned $312 (est. $300/500). Auctioneer Duncan McLean thought it “quite a lovely little piece,” and it is.

Joe Talirunili (1893-1976), Povungnituk, is most famous for his carvings of the Inuit “Migration”series, where paddling figures (animal and/or human) occupy a boat. At Waddington’s in April 2006 one version sailed to a record $288,000 (est. $40,000/60,000). His signed Seated Inuit Woman, circa 1965, is about downward flow, of her amaut, of her arms, of her parka, and her bent knees severed suddenly. Estimated at $4000/6000, it went home for $5520.

So simple, so stark, and nevertheless so striking, the stone carving Owl Laying an Egg by Davidialuk Amittu (1910-1976), Povungnituk, signed, sold for $3840 (est. $3000/5000) to the phone.

Hoot, a 2006 stone cut, 47/50, by Meelia Kelly (1940-2006) is featured on the cover of the 2006 annual Cape Dorset print catalog. Estimated at $500/700, it flew to $1560.

Cape Dorset artist Parr (1893-1969) drew stick-like, childlike figures of Inuits and animals. Three Men, Two Dogs, a 1963 stone cut, 40/50, realized a mere $1920 (est. $3000/5000).

A carving in antler by an unidentified Inuit, Dog on Base is an elegant rendering of the animal with its elongated features. Estimated at $300/500, it realized $600.

Josephie Pootoogook (1887-1958), Cape Dorset, completed his stone cut Baffin Island Woman, 6/30, in the year he died. Broad, flat shapes in brown and black in an unusual view, from the rear, make it similar to color field painting. It sold for $9000 (est. $4000/6000) in a phone war.

Abraham Etungat (1911-1999), Cape Dorset, created many carvings of birds flexing their wings. Bird with Upswept Wings, stone, signed, circa 1985, soared to $3360 (est. $1500/2500), selling to the phone.

Leave it to Judas Ullulaq (1937-1999), Gjoa Haven, to render his figures comically. His signed Drum Dancer, of stone, string, skin, wood, muskox horn, and antler, strutted to $8400 (est. $4000/6000).

Waddington’s, Toronto, Ontario

Photos courtesy Waddington’s; all prices in Canadian funds

“This one is an exceptional auction,” said Blandina Makkik of the Guild Shop, Toronto. “This doesn’t happen every day.”

Everyone attending Waddington’s auction of Inuit art on May 6 in Toronto waited anxiously for lot 84, a set of 39 graphics by Cape Dorset artists printed in 1959 (the classic period) and estimated at $400,000/450,000. Everyone wondered if the set would sell, and, if so, for how much? Or would it not reach its reserve and be passed, especially in this time of worldwide economic uncertainty?

Yet even during recessions, people with lots of money continue to spend. Auctioneer Duncan McLean started the bidding at $300,000. It increased to $340,000, where it stopped. Everyone thought a man standing at the back of the hall had won the lot. Not so. McLean didn’t say it—he never does—but the lot was passed at that point.

Waddington’s printed the 39 images on two pages in its catalog of 287 lots, but also printed a separate catalog of the 39 images in a larger size. The foreword in the catalog reads, “The 1959 release of this first portfolio of Inuit prints sold out quickly creating a sensation in the Canadian art market. It is responsible for launching an important Canadian art movement based in drawing and print making which subsequently spread throughout the Canadian Arctic and is now collected around the world.

“That this complete portfolio exists at all is due to the passion of the previous collectors, whose vision ensured this collection stayed together, ultimately to be celebrated in Canada’s National Gallery in the important 2009 exhibition—Uuturautiit: Cape Dorset Celebrates 50 Years of Printmaking.

Waddington’s, which first auctioned Inuit art in 1978, considered the set “the last complete 1959 Cape Dorset Graphics portfolio,” and declared that “very few if any would truly qualify as being nationally important as this pristine portfolio surely does.”

Popular and important images from the 1959 set include Kenojuak Ashevak’s Rabbit Eating Seaweed, a sealskin stencil, No. 8, 20/30, which sold in 1959 for $30. Another image was Tudlik’s Division of Meat, a stone cut, No. 24, 21/50, which originally sold for $20. Still another was Osuitok Ipeelee’s Four Muskoxen, a skin stencil, No. 18, 9/30, which originally sold for $25. Kunu’s Girl with Skin Line, a stone cut, No. 28, 14/30, sold in 1959 for only $10. Niviaxie’s Man Hunting at Seal Hole (in Ice), a skin stencil, No. 11, 21/30, originally brought $40, whereas his very popular Polar Bear and Cub in Ice, a skin stencil, No. 12, 14/30, cost $30. And many collectors’ favorite, Josephie Pootoogook’s Joyfully I See Ten Caribou, a stone cut, No. 29, 14/50, went home in 1959 for only $25.

But times change and auction prices go up and down. At Waddington’s in November 2009 a single copy of Niviaxie’s Man Hunting at Seal Hole, 15/30, sold for $33,600 (est. $30,000/40,000). In the same sale a single copy of Tudlik’s Division of Meat, 19/50, sold for $12,000 (est. $4000/6000), and a single copy of Pootoogook’s Joyfully I See Ten Caribou, 43/50, brought $16,800 (est. $4000/6000). In April 2010, a single copy of Niviaxie’s Polar Bear and Cub in Ice, 28/30, sold for $22,800, but in November 2010, one numbered 30/WBEC 2 sold for $31,200 (est. $15,000/20,000).

Makkik, herself an Inuit from Igloolik, has the Guild Shop’s historically important copies of the original 1959 and 1960 Cape Dorset catalogs, if not every other one since, with prices and the names of collectors who bought them. She said that in 1960 “prices went up a little bit,” from $30 to $75; the latter was the price of Kenojuak Ashevak’s famous Enchanted Owl, which was eventually produced as a Canadian stamp in 1970. Ashevak quickly became what Norman Vorano calls in the catalog’s introduction “the doyenne of Inuit art.” At Waddington’s in November 2007, an artist’s proof of Enchanted Owl, 24" x 26", estimated at $15,000/20,000, soared to $52,800.

The process of buying a Cape Dorset print from the Guild Shop or another North American or European Inuit art dealer hasn’t changed much since 1959. Each year, collectors must wait until the third Friday of October and then line up to buy. A spring release has occurred as well, but with fewer prints offered. “It’s rare to do so,” Makkik said.

Recently, Cape Dorset has distributed only 50 sets with 30 prints per set. The Guild Shop is given its choice of one or two sets, depending on availability, and generally accepts two. As many as five to nine collectors line up at the Guild’s special 8 a.m. opening on the Friday, and each collector is allowed to buy only one print. The shop also accepts phone and e-mail offers, but those who line up get first choice. “It’s not fair, otherwise,” said Makkik. (Until Av Isaacs retired his Inuit art business years ago, collectors also lined up a block away from the Guild Shop to buy images from another set, or sets, from Isaacs. Lucky collectors first in line to buy the most coveted prints were then turning around and selling them at a profit to other collectors in line.)

Longtime collectors of Inuit art normally gravitate to name artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak. After she died in January, prices for her work escalated—a given market adjustment. Her one-of-a-kind drawings, executed in her last year and on sale at the Guild Shop, ranged from $6000 for the largest to $1600 for smaller ones. On the other hand, her prints in the October 2012 Cape Dorset Collection ranged from $700 to $1200. Because they can be cheaper, and up to 50 of a desirable image are available, prints tend to be more popular with collectors. Nevertheless, drawings, in general, are increasing in popularity, Makkik said.

Other novice collectors are drawn to particular images or new, less expensive artists, such as Jutai Toonoo, Annie Pootoogook, and Ningeokuluk Teevee. One veteran collector fooled even Makkik, when recently he bought not a name artist, but a work by a younger artist that had intriguing imagery.

Eventually all the Cape Dorset prints sell, said Makkik. But other sources of Inuit prints are diminishing. Baker Lake, for example, stopped printing years ago because of management difficulties, not for lack of artists. With rarity factored into the marketing of Inuit art, prints, and wool wall hangings by such renowned Baker Lake artists as Jessie Oonark (1906-1985), Inuit art continues to be in high demand. Pangnirtung also prints, as does Holman Island (Ulukhaktok), which is trying to revolutionize printing, but of stencils only.

“Holman hasn’t the same cachet, the same draw,” said Makkik. “It’s not so strong as Cape Dorset. But its prints are affordable. It has a customer base, too.”

At the May 6 auction, collectors unable to afford lot 84 bought other rare and important works instead. These included three stone carvings by Cape Dorset artist Osuitok Ipeelee (1922/3-2005). Lot 93, a bird carving, was passed (est. $2000/2500), not surprisingly, because it’s a small carving and not Ipeelee at his boldest and best. On the other hand, Lot 105, an owl, with its raised wings folded together and overall surface pitted with tactile feather detail, was estimated at $10,000/15,000 and sold for $14,400 (with buyer’s premium). His Proud Owl, circa 1975, with a glum facial expression, its head cocked slightly left, also was passed (est. $8000/12,000).

Popular artist Ennutsiak (1896-1967) of Iqaluit has seen high prices. In November 2009 at Waddington’s his Family Enjoying Musical Instruments, circa 1955, sold for $54,000 (est. $15,000/20,000), and Leap Frog, also circa 1955, vaulted to $28,800 (est. $10,000/15,000). In May he was represented by three stone carvings. Birthing Scene, circa 1960, from the classic period, earned $7200 (est. $6000/9000). Hunters Butchering a Walrus earned $7800 (est. $4000/6000). It sold to Toronto Inuit art dealer and author Harold Seidelman. Woman Softening Skin, with an overall bold textural contrast of black and light brown, brought $4080 (est. $1500/2500). Seidelman also bought Story of the Big Giant Inukpuk by Davidialuk Alasua Amittu (1910-1976) of Povungnituk. He paid $20,400, well above its $3000/5000 estimate, for the circa 1960 signed stone carving.

Overall it was a disappointing evening for the consignor(s) of the 1959 Cape Dorset print collection, and for Waddington’s, which stood to benefit from the sale financially. The 39 framed prints hung on a wall to the right of bidders during the auction, a reminder of their beauty, rarity, and historical importance in the Inuit art market. The consignors might profit in the future by selling the prints individually.

For more information, contact Waddington’s at (416) 504-9100 or via the Web site (

Osuitok Ipeelee (1922/3-2005), Cape Dorset, is the male counterpart to Kenojuak Ashevak. His owl in stone easily soared to $14,400 (est. $10,000/ 15,000).

Another mother and child theme, a circa 1960 stone carving, Mother Chewing a Kamik with Child in her Amaut, by Davidee Saumik (1925- 1984), Inukjuak, earned $4320 (est. $4000/6000). Notice the comical touch of the child hanging on for dear life.

Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974), Spence Bay, died tragically at an early age. His carvings are in high demand. Bidding for his signed bone Shaman started at $15,000 and closed at $28,800 (est. $25,000/30,000).

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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