writes Peter Fish in the “Australian Financial Review” on 10 May 2017.
The mood in the art market is reviving after almost a decade of flatlining annual sales. Evidence of increased dealer activity on behalf of private clients is mounting amid improving sentiment and the evidence of several successful sales this year – culminating in last week’s Sotheby’s Australia sale, where numerous works realised way above expectations.
A new mood of optimism prevailed at the weekend’s auction viewings in Sydney, where two of the major operators – Deutscher and Hackett, and Menzies – were airing their wares for upcoming sales.
The Sotheby’s sale, centred on the collection of former Mars confectionery executive and one-time Sydney Morning Herald editor David Newby, saw at least three trade buyers securing works on behalf of collectors, supported by solid private bidding.
Despite at least two dozen works going unsold from the 108 offered, the sale raised a total of $11.69 million on the hammer, more than 120 per cent of the total of the lower pre-sale estimates. Including Sotheby’s buyer’s premium of 22 per cent, the sale brought in a total of $14.26 million.
It followed three earlier auctions which achieved buoyant results. Menzies’ Melbourne sale on February 9 raised $6.87 million, including premium, with 83 per cent of its lots sold. Deutscher and Hackett’s sale of art dealer Rob Gould’s collection in Sydney on March 15 raised $7.68 million with 72 per cent sold and the Laverty Collection Part III on April 5 raised $2.62 million with 94 per cent sold.
If the trend continues, it seems the Australian art market as a whole is set to break out of the $100 million to $110 million total annual tally at which it has largely languished since the boom year of 2007 – before the global financial crisis struck home.
Though it is still early days, D&H has already achieved more than half last year’s total tally, albeit helped along by two one-owner sales, while Sotheby’s has maintained its strong pace from last year, when it led the market.
The Australian Art Sales Digest website says total art sales at auction this year tally $36.49 million, almost double the $19.8 million figure generated at this point in 2016.
This week’s sales should add around $5 million to D&H’s tally of $10.29 million and $7 million to Menzies’ $6.87 million – bringing them both close to Sotheby’s $14.25 million. All three will exceed their sales for the first half of 2016.
Sotheby’s first sale of the year last week kicked off with a bang. Many of the Newby works sold at around double lower estimate, among them Elioth Gruner’s modest-sized Fisherman, Coogee Beach at $164,700, Justin O’Brien’s Palm Sunday at $183,000, Ray Crooke’s Thursday Island at $170,800 and Arthur Streeton’s diminutive The Path to Podge Newton’s at $292,800, with both the Gruner and the Crook setting artist records. More surprises on the upside quickly followed, including Jeffrey Smart’s Study for Holiday and Albert Tucker’s Explorer which both sold for $451,400.
The mixed vendor session that followed the Newby offerings saw Eugene von Guerard’s Breakneck Gorge, Hepburn Springs fetch $1.95 million and View of the Granite Rocks at Cape Woolamai $976,000, Russell Drysdale’s Head of a Boy at $610,000, Rosalie Gascoigne’s Summer Fat at $585,600 and Arthur Streeton’s Cremorne at $549,000.
John Brack’s dazzling flower study The Butcher’s Bouquet was unsold, but it was re-offered as a private sale by Sotheby’s this week.
Retired art dealer Tom Silver, who occasionally bids on behalf of clients, successfully secured three lots at Sotheby’s and was underbidder on a fourth.
He paid $164,700, almost double the lower estimate, for John Perceval’s Harbour Trust, Williamstown, showing the frenetic activity at Melbourne’s oldest port, which came fresh to the market from a private Melbourne collection.
Silver paid $73,200, almost three times the lower estimate for Perceval’s Neil Douglas’ Garden, 1958, which hailed from a private collection in Britain. Amid a profusion of flowers and undergrowth, a playful Perceval touch: a childlike face peers from the foliage on the left of the picture. The veteran dealer also bought William Dobell’s Angoram on the Sepik River, dating from the artist’s infatuation with Papua New Guinea’s lush western highlands, which cost $70,760.
Other “insiders” buying at Sotheby’s included art consultant David Hulme, who is one of those vocal about the improving market, and Roger McIlroy, a former head of Christie’s in Australia who now wields the gavel at Deutscher and Hackett.
Not spotted among the trade buyers at this sale was former dealer Denis Savill, who is tidying up decades of paperwork after closing his Paddington gallery.