Marcel Barbeau (Canadian, 1925 - )
Courtesy of the Westbridge Fine Art

The Automatistes were formed in the late 1940s in Montreal, and came into prominence with the publication of their radical manifesto, the Refus Global, in 1947. Essentially a group of abstract painters whose philosophy was to paint “automatically”, without thought and preparation, the movement was under the leadership of prominent Quebec painter Paul-Emile Borduas. Although there were eight original members - Marcel Barbeau, Borduas, Marcelle Ferron, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Francois Sullivan, - Sullivan’s work seldom comes on the market (three low prices in 25 years). To provide a more accurate reading of the group’s activity, therefore, we have chosen to omit the artist from the WPL Automatistes Index.

Abstract art in Canada, and, indeed, around the world, had little market following outside of serious collectors, museums and academics until the unprecedented boom of the late 1980s. ‘Abstract’ and all its variations became the buz words of the new breed of collector. The radical, bizarre, extreme, and sometimes simply non-descript art of the period was all the rage and, for a few years, it seemed like the market just couldn’t get enough of it. It culminated for Canadian art with the sale of Riopelle’s untitled abstract work at Sotheby’s, New York, for $1.6 million in 1989 - the height of the contemporary market in Canada. The Automatistes naturally enough rode the wave of popularity and their Index soared to a very impressive 4602 points ($283,750).
The light began to fade on all things abstract as the 1980s drew to a close. A little jockeying took place in the ensuing years, with the Index falling 56.5% in 1989/90 then rising slightly the following year to close at 2343 points ($144,483), about 50% off the market high. After 1990/91 the Automatistes’ market went into a tailspin with only a modest attempt at a revival in 1993/94, before fading away through the end of the 1990s.

The Index got a welcome shot in the arm in the 2001/02 season when several works by Riopelle turned up at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London, England, in June 2002. At Christie’s was Composition, from 1951, the first large and important canvas to come on the market since the artist’s death in March, 2002. It sold for the equivalent of $1,311,000 - the second highest price ever recorded for the artist at auction. The near record price injected new energy into the contemporary market in Canada, and gave a positive boost to the languishing Automatiste Index.

Return on Investment:
Needless to say, with the strength of the Riopelle market in 2002, the average annual return on investment for this Index looks extremely attractive. Over one year you would have enjoyed a whopping 1510.65% return, while over five years you would have to settle for a modest 38.12% return on investment. Ten years is even better, posting a return of 39.47%, while over 23 years your average annual rate of return would have been a very pleasing 16.87%. Had the Riopelle not appeared in London so fortuitously, the Index would look dramatically different with all but the long term picture posting significant annual losses.

A $10,000 investment in this Index in 1980 is worth $360,688 today (2002). However, that same investment, if cashed in last year, would have been worth a more modest $22,393.

Information on this page courtesy of Made In Canada! An Investor's Guide to the Canadian Art Market, copyright Westbridge Publications, 2002

If you have works by members of The Automatistes that you wish to sell or have appraised, please visit us at Westbridge Fine Art Auction House or call us at 604-736-1014.