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A piece of Toronto on the auction block in London

Every Torontonian who’s driven north on the DVP past Lawrence Avenue knows the rainbow tunnel. It’s been a smile-raising fixture on that roadway, often repainted, since the early 1970s. A Scottish-born, Canadian-raised painter named Peter Doig painted the rainbow tunnel several times in the following years after he had returned to Britain. The version known as Country-Rock (wing mirror), painted in 1999, is to go on the auction block today in London at Sotheby’s. It has a starting price of $13.5 million US. It could go for much more than that, which would make it the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living British painter.

The highest price paid so far for a British painting was $142.4 million for Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud. That was in November 2013. Francis Bacon, died in 1992. Another of his paintings, a triptych portrait of George Dyer, is on today’s auction list with the Doig painting. The Bacon work is listed at $25 million. The highest price paid anywhere for a painting was for a work by Paul Cezanne, The Card Players. It sold for $259 million in 2011.

The rainbow tunnel at the heart of Doig’s painting is described in the Daily Telegraph newspaper as “a much-loved landmark.” The rainbow was originally painted by a Norwegian named Berg Johnson when he was sixteen years old. Johnson, the paper says, painted it in memory of a friend who had died in a car accident. He has repainted the rainbow dozens of times over the years.

Whether Doig knew anything of this is not clear, but his painting “signifies the artist’s fond memories of growing up in Canada.” A contemporary art expert at Sotheby’s, Cheyenne Westphal, said in the Telegraph piece that the rainbow tunnel is one of the most “prominent and resonant motifs” in Doig’s work. He is described as “a giant in the current market.”

For lovers of Doig, it has a supreme status, akin only perhaps to that of the canoe, and of all the works in which the motif appears, the Country-Rock series is the apogee. Doig is a giant in the current market, and this particular work is fabled. Its appearance at auction represents an all-time first—and hugely exciting—opportunity for collectors.

Cheyenne Westphal, Sotheby’s

The current market is, apparently, decidedly hot for contemporary art. According to the Wall Street Journal, sales of impressionist and modern art have been down in London, dropping to a combined total of just $353.9 million at Sotheby’s and Christie’s last week. In February, sales were $566.6 million.

Sales for contemporary art have been “ballooning,” however, in a market divergence that “could prove historic.” The newer artists like Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol are now commanding the $100 million-plus prices, while reduced supply of top-drawer impressionist and modernist masterpieces is dwindling. People still want the “trophies” but there are fewer of them around.

For outsiders, the degree to which the buying and selling of art is manipulated by marketing is a little bit surprising. A painting of water lilies by Claude Monet, for instance, was expected to sell for just $34 million US last week, but Sotheby’s used a “bargain-pricing strategy” and sold the “discounted” painting for $54 million. It was the second-highest price ever paid for a Monet at auction. Clever marketing is credited with the coup.

Sotheby’s “won the week” on the strength of that water lilies sale, beating its rival, Christie’s by $57 million.

So important is the marketing of art that individual paintings, like the Peter Doig Country-Rock (wing mirror), are even given their own marketing videos now, like condos and cars and everything else with a price tag. Watch the video.

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