TORONTO – New York forensic accountant Joan Lipton always thought of her father’s cousin, Belle Burke, as her “exotic, bohemian” relative.
A prominent translator, editor and writer, the now 84-year-old Burke used to live in Paris and Venice; had famous friends including author Norman Mailer and art collector Peggy Guggenheim; and had a Greenwich Village apartment adorned with beaded curtains and tokens from the City of Lights, including a poodle named Ebonite and paintings.
Lipton knew the art on Burke’s walls was from someone she once knew, but it wasn’t until a few months ago she found out they were done by late Montreal abstract artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, and that he gave them to Burke when she was his mistress in Paris in the 1950s.
Eight of Burke’s Riopelle pieces are now up for sale through Heffel Fine Art Auction House’s spring 2013 event, being held on Wednesday in Vancouver.
“I gather, from what she’s told me, that he was married and had two young daughters and they started a relationship, and I think it was a very tempestuous one,” Lipton said in a recent telephone interview.
“They were together for several years. He wanted to marry her and she tells me that she refused.”
Lipton said it was the early ’50s when New Jersey-born Burke (nee Notkin), a French and literature major, went to Paris to live and study.
She worked as a translator and editor and met Riopelle at a party during a productive period in his career, when he was wed to dancer Francoise l’Esperance.
They had an affair for several years, and Riopelle was said to be smitten.
Burke, however, wanted to end the romance for quite a while and returned to New York to get away from his marital pleas and work for then-senator Jacob Javits.
Still, Riopelle persisted, visiting her there and writing her numerous letters.
He also showered her with oil paintings, watercolours and a sketchbook containing 19 smaller watercolours (17 of which will be in Heffel’s sale).
“Some of them had writing on them to her, and in addition to these watercolours and the love letters there were other things,” said Lipton.
“He would take catalogues relating to his shows and write love notes to her. He would take scraps of newspaper or would do a watercolour on a kind of fold-up paper and write notes to her and put them inside.
“So there’s quite a trail about their relationship, virtually all of it in French.”
Other Riopelle works Burke is selling include two untitled oils on canvas: One is expected to fetch $100,000 to $150,000, and the other has a pre-sale estimate of $80,000 to $120,000.
Lipton said she found out the story behind the pieces when she started going through Burke’s belongings to prepare them and her home for sale.
Burke, who doesn’t have children, is “very frail now and she’s had some memory problems, which have gotten a little bit worse,” and she “can no longer live on her own.”
But Burke “remembers Riopelle and remembers his works very well,” said Lipton, noting the older woman is not emotional about selling the works.
“I think she remembers the period with fondness,” said Lipton. “She remembers that she did not want to marry him and that she essentially ran away. But I wouldn’t describe her as emotional in a negative way. I think she feels very positively about the art and it was a long time ago.”
Lipton said she wanted to sell the pieces through Heffel because she “really liked the idea of having these works sold in Canada.”
“I felt that that was just sort of poetic justice, and I know that he has a daughter who has created a catalogue resume and I just thought it was the proper thing to do.”
The Heffel sale also includes another Riopelle work that’s not from the Burke collection — a 1955 canvas titled “Composition” that measures more than two metres long and is expected to fetch between $600,000 and $800,000.
A total of 186 lots will be on offer in the auction that will be presented in two sessions and is expected to achieve between $7 million and $10 million.
Full sale catalogue available at www.heffel.com