Skip to main content

Hot Art From the Arctic

Inuit prints from northern Canada offer a beautiful -- and affordable -- investment.

CAPE DORSET, Canada -- In a village north of Hudson's Bay, a group of Inuit artists is preparing for an annual exhibition whose reputation transcends the isolated terrain of their arctic home.

Today the latest edition of Cape Dorset prints will be released to an eager public, ranging from private collectors to museums throughout North America, Europe and Japan.

What started out as a way for indigenous people to cope with a depressed economy has grown into a exclusive event in the art world. "Many clients wait in line for hours before the opening in order to ensure they get the prints they covet," says Mark London, owner of the Galerie Elca London in Montreal.

Depending on the artist, each edition of original prints can sell out quickly. Each print is usually limited to an edition of 50.

A Cape Dorset print can represent an appreciable asset if the buyer is patient: Some purchased for a few hundred dollars or less many years ago can now command five figures at auction. The average price for a print from the first collection was about $30, says London; most prints from this class of 1959 sell between $1,000 and $10,000 today.

The most famous print is

Enchanted Owl

by visionary Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak, now 80 years old, who also has several pieces in the 2007 collection.

Enchanted Owl

cost $75 when it was released to the public in 1960. At a 2001 auction in Toronto, one sold for $58,650, says Leslie Boyd Ryan, director of

Dorset Fine Arts, the wholesale marketing division of the Inuit-owned West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative.

However, if a collector has the temperament of a daytrader or the soul of a condominium-flipper, this artwork isn't a good fit. "Cape Dorset prints do appreciate, generally speaking, but it's a long-term investment strategy," Ryan says. It can take 10 or 20 years -- or more -- for a print to rack up a big gain in value.

An Economic Lift

Cape Dorset, now a village of about 1,300 people, arose around the Hudson's Bay Company trading post in the early 1900s. When the Arctic fur trade failed after World War II, many of the Inuit who had lived inland moved closer to this seaside settlement.

In the 1950s, the federal government built a craft shop to encourage development of Inuit culture -- including stone carving, which is a popular tradition -- and the first print-making experiments were conducted in 1957 and 1958 by the artist James Houston, who served as the government's community administrator.

As a result, the Cape Dorset print collection is one part art and one part anthropology. "The

artists are bringing a worldview to the rest of us that's rather special," says Marie Routledge, associate curator of Inuit art at the

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Cape Dorset prints were first displayed publicly in 1960 at

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. "In the early days, there wasn't much contact with the north," Routledge says. At that time, the artwork was loaded onto a supply ship from the village located at the southwestern tip of Baffin Island, and sent out for distribution to a handful of Canadian galleries. "People

here were charmed and amazed by the prints," Routledge says.

From the very beginning, the prints provided a "critical link between the Inuit culture and western culture, as well as between the contemporary Inuit and their past," says David Shultz, director of the

Home & Away Gallery in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The earliest prints offer a jolting juxtaposition of how the Inuit viewed the modern world. For example, the late artist Pudlo Pudlat gained fame with works that included helicopters or airplanes in scenes with traditional Inuit symbols such as a hunting boat or musk oxen, Shultz explains.

"Early prints had an innocence that has been partly lost in the transition to today's more sophisticated, worldly designs," Shultz says. "However, the Inuit survived for millennia in a tremendously inhospitable land by being creative and adaptable."

Although long-time collectors might lament modern-world influences on Inuit print-making, experts say there's room for many views. "The north doesn't stay still any more than any other place in the world," says Routledge. "Some artists say 'I draw what I know.' Others say 'I like

drawing the history of my culture. Kenojuak says, 'I'm here to make something beautiful.'"

A Buyer's Guide

Most art experts will tell novice collectors to buy what they like, and Inuit art specialists are no different. "Collectors should look for work that speaks to them," says Shultz.

Still, collectors looking for investment potential often ask if they should buy a famous name or a new up-and-comer. "Often the known names -- Kenojuak Ashevak and Kananginak Pootoogook -- are safer investments," Shultz says. However, a strong image from a lesser-known will probably appreciate more than a weak print from a big-name artist, he continues.

"My favorite line is that there was a time when Picasso was an unknown artist," says Mark London, noting that first-edition prints are usually priced to reflect an artist's fame. The 31 Cape Dorset prints issued today range in price from $350 to $1,300. "Even prints by senior artists ... are still reasonably priced," he notes.

Collectors also can choose among several print techniques ranging from modern lithography and etching to the traditional stonecuts. Because there are no trees in Cape Dorset, the Inuit use blocks of stone in the same way traditional printmakers utilize blocks of wood.

"Some people like the classic stonecut, but not all images are suited for the stonecut technique," says the National Gallery's Routledge, adding that lithography can offer more nuance in design and a wider range of colors.

The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative continues to restrict the supply of prints. "Fifty is an acceptable size for an original print edition, both for the printmaker who has to pull each one and the collector who knows there are only 50 of a particular image," says Leslie Boyd Ryan. Each print is inked and produced by hand. "There's no mechanization," she says. Except for occasional special issues, Cape Dorset prints are released once yearly, in the fall.

Still, modern technology has democratized the sale of the prints. Although a handful of galleries are chosen each year as official hosts for the prints, samples of the artwork are posted on the Dorset Fine Arts Web site and on Internet sites of galleries approved by the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. It seems that the modern world has plenty of room for such an ancient art.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.