Last week at Virginia-based Potomack Company Auctions and Appraisals’ online Inuit art auction, Howling Spirit (Tornrak) and Its Young (1962), a sculpture by Kiugak Ashoona, CC, RCA (1933-2014), sold for a hammer price of $110,000, more than doubling the artist’s previous record at public auction. The record was previously held by Mother and Child (c. 1960), which sold for $47,200 at Walker’s Auctioneers and Appraisers in 2015.
Featuring a dynamic posture and intense facial expression, both signatures of the Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, artist’s style, Howling Spirit blew past its estimated price of $16,000 - $22,000. A result likely made possible by the works' unusual notoriety, courtesy of its provenance.
In December of 1963 or 1964, James Houston—who is recognized for bringing Inuit art to the attention of Southern audiences and introducing printmaking to Inuit artists—presented the sculpture as a Christmas gift to his friend Arthur A. Houghton Jr., an American industrialist who became the 10th President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1964.
While this sculpture was a private gift, Houghton did purchase and donate a number of Inuit artworks to the Met over the course of his tenure as President and later Chairman. In 1969, James Houston donated a further Inuit art collection to the museum. Together, these acquisitions form a significant part of the museum’s Inuit art collection, which today has grown to include hundreds of pieces.
Howling Spirit (Tornrak) and Its Young was featured on the cover of Sculpture/Inuit: Masterworks of the Canadian Arctic (1971), a catalogue documenting the internationally-touring Canadian Eskimo Arts Council exhibition, in which James Houston and George Swinton—author of one of the earliest Inuit art reference texts, Sculpture of the Inuit (1971)—both authored chapters. When the exhibition opened in Vancouver, Ashoona was an honorary attendee. The exhibition then toured to major world cities, including Paris, Copenhagen, London, Moscow and Philadelphia.
Beyond the record set by Ashoona’s work, the auction last week featured a number of early Kinngait prints which performed strongly, including Nine Arctic Birds (1960), Summer Tent (1960) and Driving Malting Geese Into Stone Pens (1960) all by the artist Kiakshuk, which sold for hammer prices of $3,000, $4,000 and $1,500 respectively.
Four works from the first ever Cape Dorset Print Collection were also at auction, all selling at or above their estimated hammer prices. Kanaginak Pootoogook’s Legend of the Blind Man and the Bear (1959) sold for $4,750, while three prints by Niviaksiak, Snow House Builders (1959), Eskimos Fishing Through Ice (1959) and Hunter With Bear (1959) sold for $3,750, $4,000 and $4,500 respectively.