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Iconic Emily Carr painting to become Whistler treasure

At $3.393 million, Landscape sets record at auction as it makes it way to Audain Art Museum collection

Whistler will soon be home to the most expensive piece of Canadian art by a female artist bought at auction.

Even buyer Michael Audain, who is building an estimated $30-million museum in Whistler to house his art collection, admitted to sticker shock at the $3.393 million price tag for Emily Carr's The Crazy Stair — the fourth most expensive piece sold at an art auction in Canada and the highest-ever paid for an Emily Carr.

"It happened very quickly," said Audain this week, finally revealing that he was the anonymous buyer at the Heffel Fine Art Auction House in November's sale. "The bidding went very quickly. I was on the telephone. Before I knew it, I won the bidding. I was a little shocked to see the price. You have to add on 12 per cent GST and provincial tax. It's a lot of money for a Canadian work of art."

But he couldn't resist the chance to own The Crazy Stair.

After all, he's had his eye on it these past 40 years as it hung in the members-only Vancouver Club.

"I would see it on a dark stairway in the Vancouver Club, and I think what you've got there, is you've got the shore, the original people of British Columbia they lived on the shoreline and by the sea, you've got the canoes... and that big figure there which obviously impressed Emily Carr tremendously. And it's just a powerful picture. It's large too. It's one of her largest paintings. It will make a fairly good impression, I think."

He is referring to the impression that The Crazy Stair will leave on visitors coming to his Audain Art Museum, which is set to open in late 2015.

Construction work is well underway in between parking lots 3 and 4 opposite municipal hall. The facility will be a 56,000 square foot home for Audain's collection of B.C., art as well as hosting exhibitions from around the world.

Audain has been keeping an eye on the Whistler construction site via live web cam from his office in Vancouver.

The Crazy Stair will be the anchor for more than 20 Emily Carr paintings in Audain and wife Yoshiko Karasawa's private collection that will be on display in the new museum.

"I think it indicates something of the importance of our Emily Carr collection, which people like Ian Thom (senior curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery) say is the most important private collection in the country. Well, when we donate our pictures, which will be over the next couple of years, it will be one of the most important public collections.

"If someone wants to see an Emily Carr, and an awful lot of people do who come to British Columbia, they're going to have to come up to Whistler and visit us."

Whistler's Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden couldn't contain her delight about the record-breaking painting for Whistler.

"It's fantastic," she said with a large grin after this week's council meeting.

The municipality has played a key role in paving the way for Audain's art museum.

Emily Carr painted The Crazy Stair in 1928. It was originally owned by Carr's publisher W.H. Clark, then by B.C. forest baron and industrialist H.R. MacMillan who donated it to the Vancouver Club.

Audain felt it was important to keep it in the province.

"We really wanted it for Whistler," he added. "I don't know how high, if I'd been able to keep on going. It certainly made a dent in my pocketbook!"

At that same Heffel auction, Carr's War Canoes, Alert Bay in watercolour sold for $351,000. Audain did not buy it.

"We can't afford to buy everything!" he said.

He already owns the 1912 oil painting of the same name, which will also hang in Whistler.

The museum itself has been collecting important British Columbia artwork of late, in preparation for opening.

In addition to his impressive Carr collection, Audain has also collected First Nations art including masks over the years, as well as contemporary west coast art.

He added: "I think people will be very pleasantly surprised, let's put it that way, of the quality of the collection that we'll be offering for inspection by the public."