Albert Namatjira price reset & Smith & Singer’s new auction records

Smith & Singer’s final fine art auction of the year with a tight offering of 55 lots provided some spectacular results, including four artist auction records for contemporary artists: Del Kathryn Barton and Julie Rrap, as well as ever popular Albert Namatjira and lesser known artist Gertrude Fenton. They also very nearly set a fifth auction record on the night, for Ireland-based John Kelly represented by Smith & Singer.
Albert Namatjira watercolour
Lot 38, Albert Namatjira ‘Waters of the Finke’, 1958, doubled the previous artist’s record of $100,000, selling for $200,000.

After selling Kelly’s Man Lifting Cow 1, 1994, in August this year for a record breaking $290,000 ($170,000 above the previous highest auction result), Smith & Singer achieved another stunning result for Painting the Big Picture, 1999 (Lot 5). Paying the second highest price in the sale of $260,000 for a painting of a painting and more than doubling the low estimates of $100,000, the owner will require an equally big wall to display the 182.7 x 168 cm sized canvas.

With running the new cycling, a small Jeffrey Smart painting Study for the Reservoir, Centennial Park, 1988 (Lot 7) of four competitive runners charging up a set of stairs before the advent of wick-away training clothes and high-tech running shoes looks completely of the moment. Unsurprisingly, the bids ran away from its $60,000-80,000 estimates, selling for $110,000. At its last offering at Sotheby’s 14 years ago the study didn’t gather quite as much speed, having sold for $50,000 on the same estimates as for this sale.

Two John Olsen watercolours were offered in the sale. Whilst the much larger Warburton River Groove, 2011 (Lot 8) sold well for $95,000 (est. $70,000-90,000), the smaller Birds and Dam, 1977 (Lot 44) didn’t fly on its more modest expectations of $45,000-65,000 and passed in.

Works by Albert Tucker from the estate of Barbara Tucker continue to find favour when offered by Smith & Singer, with three in this auction, plus a non-estate Tucker. Consigned by a different vendor Parrot Flying, 1965 (Lot 9), was a particularly colour and movement filled example, and colourful bidding ensued, with a final bid of $60,000, well above the $30,000-40,000 estimate.

Tucker’s strong figurative images sold well: Armoured Explorer, 1996 (Lot 14) achieved $180,000 (est. $180,000-220,000), whilst a compelling portrait of Sidney Nolan (Lot 16) from 1982 surpassed its $30,000-40,000 hopes to sell for $60,000. However, his Subway, 1955 (Lot 19), though a large and early picture which contained a ghost-like explorer figure within, failed to animate buyers, passing in on estimates of $180,000-220,000.

The highest prices for paintings by Arthur Boyd have always been for his groundbreaking Bride series, with the record held by Drowned Bridegroom, 1959, sold in August 2018 by Sotheby’s for $1.6 million. Any painting of this subject coming on the market which has been held in one collection since its original purchase is therefore guaranteed to create a buzz. Bride and Bridegroom by a Stream, 1960 (Lot 11), had been acquired by the late American publisher Frederick Amos Praeger and has now been consigned to Smith & Singer by his late wife’s estate with estimates of $350,000-550,000. Inspired bidding led it to sell for a very solid $420,000 hammer price. A calm depiction of the countryside by the same artist from 1958, The Old Farm (Lot 13) sold at the low estimate of its $150,000-250,000 range.

Brett Whiteley was regarded to be at the peak of his artistic abilities between 1976 and 1978, demonstrated by his wins in Australia’s major art prizes: in 1976, he won both the Archibald and Sulman Prizes and in 1977 the Wynne Prize for Landscape for The Jacaranda Tree. It was however 1978 that saw Whiteley famously win the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne Prizes simultaneously. His Vision of Bali, 1976-1978 (Lot 12), captures this time of excellence, and at Smith & Singer last night, it captured the collectors too. The cover lot of the sale achieved a very healthy $900,000 on estimates of $800,000-1.2 million.

Smith & Singer continue to lead the field with successful sales at auction of one of Australia’s most important contemporary artists, Del Kathryn Barton. Of Pollen, 2013, broke the record in 2018 selling at Sotheby’s in May 2018 for $310,000. Although successive high prices were achieved, it wasn’t until November 2021 that Wild Carrot Dream, 2015, set a new auction record of $330,000.

It is however a very large painting of one of Australia’s iconic animals the kangaroo, which has now established a new benchmark for Del Kathryn Barton. On estimates of $200,000-250,000, We Will Ride, 2014 (Lot 20), bidding was frenzied and hopped from bidder to bidder, at one point jumping from $260,000 to $300,000. It sold for the new record of $380,000, keeping Del Kathryn Barton as one of our most sought-after artists.

In what looks like a woke response to a large painting by Aboriginal artist Lin Onus, one of his major paintings failed to sell in last evening’s sale on estimates of $400,000-600,000. Ten Little Niggers, 1992 (Lot 21) depicts a sinuous nude on a lilo, her face hidden by Agatha Christie’s eponymous book. With interest levels as high as they have ever been for this highly respected and lauded artist’s work, could the title of the work today have discouraged bidding?

Both an early and late work by Cressida Campbell, the most sought-after artist in the Australian auction room and currently the focus of a retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia were included in the sale. Campbell’s prices continue their spectacular rise, demonstrated in last night’s result for The Ebro, Gove Bay, 1987 (Lot 23). This woodblock print from an edition of 2 sold for $80,000 (est. $80,000-120,000). Just three years ago in April 2019, the corresponding incised woodblock had sold at Deutscher + Hackett for exactly the same and a now modest looking $80,000 hammer price.

The more recent and more abstract incised woodblock Wheat Stalks, 2016 (Lot 24), also sold well for $100,000 (est. $100,000-140,000), especially given its particularly narrow dimensions of 22.5 x 120 cm.

The booming secondary market for Australian expat artist Jordy Kerwick sees no sign of abating: a sale of US$106,200 in South Korea on 26 October, a £110,000 sale at Sotheby’s London on 15 October and the same result on 13 October at Christies London, as well as £170,000 at Phillips also on 13 October. However last night, his Scared of Everything, 2019 (Lot 26 , failed to fire on its $40,000-60,000 estimates.

It was the opposite direction for Julie Rrap’s Persona and Shadow: Puberty, 1984 (Lot 27) which set a new artist’s record of $35,000 on estimates of $10,000-15,000. Deutscher + Hackett had set the stage by selling Conception from the same series from mega-collector Pat Corrigan in July 2021 for $16,000. Rrap demonstrates that is not just Cressida Campbell who can sell her prints for substantial sums.

Previously consigned to auctioneer Theodore Bruce in 2018 and sold for $31,000, Roy de Maistre’s uninspiringly titled The Iron Bedstead, 1928 (Lot 29), is a beautiful study in both perspective and colour. It clearly resonated with Smith & Singer’s audience with considerably revised estimates of $65,000-85,000 in the much higher profile auction, selling for $90,000 or almost three times the price paid in 2018.

Hot off the second highest price for a painting by Ethel Carrick Fox of $975,000, achieved by Smith & Singer in August this year, Geoffrey Smith found Esquisse en Australie (Sketch in Australia), 1908 (Lot 31) in Canada of all places. Whilst the work very much presented as a sketch, its bold impressionist brushstrokes, play on light, bright colour palette and atmosphere of joie de vivre enthused bidders and sold for a remarkable $200,000 on hopes of $60,000-80,000.

Three paintings by Arthur Streeton were offered in the sale, all with extensive provenance and exhibition history. Romance in Blue and Gold, 1932 (Lot 32) filled with a “Streeton blue” ocean and male and female figures in the foreground, was decorative gold and sold for $440,000 on a wide-ranging estimate of $300,000-500,000. Meanwhile, Sydney Harbour, Coronation Day, 1911 (Lot 35), became the second highest priced watercolour by Streeton to sell at auction, after Cairo Street Scene, 1898, sold by Deutscher + Hackett in November 2021 for $72,000. Once owned by Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the little gem sold for $55,000 (est. $55,000-75,000). In a rare fail for Streeton, Evening Mosman, 1914 (Lot 34), previously sold by Leonard Joel in March 2017 for $68,000, did not meet its revised (high) hopes of $120,000-180,000.

A high watermark for Albert Namatjira watercolours was set 14 years ago in 2008, when a modestly sized and early work circa 1936/7 was sold for $80,000 (est. $40,000-60,000). It took 8 years for Namatjira to achieve a six figure sale, when Sotheby’s sold the very large Finke River Mission and Mt Hermannsburg, NT for $100,000 in 2016. Another 6 years passed before Deutscher + Hackett sold Glen Helen Gorge for $100,000 in March 2022, equalling the $100,000 achieved in 2016. However last night, we saw a huge re-set in Namatjira’s market with the sale of a large example of the artist’s work Water of the Finke, 1958 (Lot 38) measuring 38 x 57 cm. Encouraged by the provenance, a date for the work, its size, colouring and less than common water view, this painting contained every element to change the future pricing of Namatjira’s work. Estimated at $40,000-60,000, bidding was as a strong as it gets, with the final price of $200,000 doubling the previous sale record for the artist.

All prices shown are hammer prices in Australian dollars.

Article exclusively for Australian Art Sales Digest