Polished soapstone men hold ivory paddles while a matching mast hoists a hide sail above them. Dozens of renderings of this scene, both in sculpture and stonecut print, circulate the Inuit art market. One piece, “The Migration” made headlines in 2011 when it sold for $290,000.
The piece was estimated to sell for between $100,000 and $150,000—a significant price for Inuit art, but certainly not unheard of. The series of pieces called Joe Boats—after their famed creator Joe Talirunili—were carved in the 1960s and 1970s, telling the story of his and several others’ ordeal when travelling to hunting grounds in Nunavik. The group became trapped on an ice floe and had to construct a raft from the material they had on them—sealskin, wooden sleds and rope.
Inuit art is storied, symbolic and often collectors are interested in both the culture and the art itself, says Duncan McLean, president of Waddington’s auction house. And since he started selling Inuit art in the late 1970s, the demand for good quality pieces continues to grow.
“As far as trends go, we are seeing Inuit art continue to steadily make inroads into the mainstream Canadian art market,” says McLean. At its May auction, Waddington’s listed Inuit art alongside mainstream Canadian works and the move was validated by a strong response from fine-art collectors. Interestingly, Inuit art has more of a hold on international buyers—in Europe in particular—than it does within Canada, says McLean.
“In Canada, it was always second-cousin to mainstream Canadian art, the Group of Seven and that, even though Inuit art for many years was collected internationally,” he says. “We’ve been working the last five, six or seven years to bring Inuit art into our more mainstream art. I would like to see Kenojuak [Ashevak] recognized as a great Canadian artist not just an Inuit artist.”