Boom times for art auction sales at Smith & Singer

The pick of the art collection of the late Harry Oviss made up the first 13 lots at Smith & Singer’s Important Australian art sale held in Sydney on 12 April, or about 15% of the 82 artworks on offer. According to Gabriella Coslovich (Australian Financial Review, 30 March), the prodigious collector did not sell a single artwork during his 70 years of amassing treasures, as Gibson’s in Melbourne had previously sold thousands of items during a three-day auction marathon.

Inge King’s Lookout (Lot 1), a painted steel sculpture from 1973, started the evening, selling mid-range at $35,000. Victor Vasarely’s most typical kaleidoscopic, however modestly sized Quasar-Dia, 1967-68 (Lot 2) generated considerable energetic action amongst the several phone bidders, with a hammer price of $48,000 eventually considerably eclipsing the $15,000-20,000 estimates.

The Oviss estate also contained an early Jeffrey Smart painting, of which there were a total of five on offer at Smith & Singer, helpful in satisfying the appetite of collectors back from their trip to the retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia on this most respected of Australian artists.  Study for Sunstrip Baths, Coogee, 1961 (Lot 6) provides us with clear indications on his later painting and lessons on perspective, light, composition and mystery that Smart is revered for. Estimated at $30,000-50,000, it sold just shy of its high hopes for $45,000. Having been exhibited at South Yarra Gallery in November 1962, it is nice to know what 40 guineas would have bought you 60 years ago at a Melbourne gallery.

The stand-out of the Oviss collection would have to be Brett Whiteley’s An Orange Flower, 1969-70 (Lot 7). This small painting created in Fiji and bursting with vibrant colours has been held in Oviss’ collection for just about as long as you might own a Whiteley painting, purchased from Australian Galleries in 1970. It seems that buyers were bursting with desire to own this hidden gem: not surprisingly, this rare painting sold for $350,000, well above its high estimate of $250,000.

Immediately following the Oviss offerings, four important paintings were consigned from UK collectors Prof. Bernard Zeitlyn and Mrs Alice Zeitlyn. They were all purchased in the 1960s, and all achieved solid results. The most sought after was a delightful Arthur Boyd London Scene from 1963: A Mother, Child and Dog on Hampstead Heath (Lot 17) sold above its $110,000-150,000 expectations for $160,000.

Smith & Singer informs us in the catalogue entry that you could have purchased John Perceval’s Painting in the Rain, 1966 (Lot 19) for $1,400 from Clune Galleries in April 1966. This title must have struck a chord particularly with eastern states collectors given the last few months of downpours, as its $45,000-65,000 estimates were left high and dry, selling for an impressive $110,000 hammer price.

Many more interesting insights can be gained, as numerous catalogue entries reveal original purchase prices for the lots. 10 guineas was the asking price for Arthur Boyd’s Seascape, Rosebud, 1952 (Lot 22), from Princes Gallery in Melbourne in July 1952; 70 years later, it sold for a bit more at $24,000, on hopes of $20,000-30,000.

Meanwhile, the rain in Spain was captured by A Water Carrier (Lot 23), an evocative oil on wood panel painted by Tom Roberts in Granada in 1883, which was offered together with its preparatory sketch. Two for the price of one encouraged the bidders, and the $120,000-160,000 were truly surpassed by the final result of $200,000.

Arthur Streeton Study for Golden Summer

When Arthur Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1899, sold in 1995 for $3.5 million to the National Gallery of Australia, it set a record price for an Australian painting. Given the rise and rise again of Streeton’s prices, it is no wonder that the small oil study on cardboard Impression for Golden Summer, 1888-89 (Lot 24), created a buzz in the auction room.  Estimated at $250,000-350,000, it was clearly destined for greater things, selling for almost double the low estimate for $450,000.

According to the catalogue entry, Joshua McClelland Gallery sold it in August 1950 for £42; clearly a much better long-term investment than Streeton’s Chelsea, c1905 (Lot 26 ), an atmospheric watercolour whose glory perhaps had faded since Seddon Galleries sold it in the same year for £52.10. On modest estimates of $6,000-9,000, it doubled its highs hopes and sold for $18,000.

Demand for Streeton however continued on the night, and an iconic blue seascape, which had initially sold in 1927 for 90 guineas, also proved irresistible. An Ocean Bay, 1926 (Lot 29), reached a high of $320,000, swamping its estimates of $150,000-250,000.

Hans Heysen’s Summer Afternoon Glow, Ambleside, 1922 (Lot 34) was highly sought and sold well above expectations of $18,000-25,000 for $39,000.

Meanwhile, the major Jeffrey Smart in the sale had been offered eight years ago in 2014 with a low estimate of $250,000, however it failed to find a buyer at that level. This time round, Dampier II, 1966-67 (Lot 36 , came with raised expectations of $350,000-450,000 and sold for a very impressive $580,000.

Have we started to see the long-awaited shift in pricing for major paintings by John Olsen sold at auction? Deutscher + Hackett achieved spectacular results for three paintings in their NAB sale in February, all three works surpassing expectations substantially. At Smith & Singer, The Tuscan Kitchen, 2002 (Lot 47), estimated at $120,000-160,000 was very strongly bid too, eventually settling at $290,000; surely food for thought for future buyers of Olsen’s work.

Two impressive canvasses by Emily Kngwarreye came with excellent Delmore Gallery provenance, and perhaps the aristocratic provenance of Count and Countess von Faber-Castell added the extra cachet: Kame Flowers, 1991 (Lot 48 ), was offered at $40,000-60,000 and sold for $95,000, while Desert Tracks, 1992 (Lot 49), carried higher hopes of $150,000-250,000, selling for $230,000.

The vendor of Ethel Carrick Fox’s The Market Place (Lot 58) might be left disappointed by the non-sale at $120,000-180,000 on the evening, having purchased the work in France on 30th June 2019 for Euro 22,000 – however, it was clearly exceptional buying.

Early works by Charles Conder often excite and resonate with collectors, and Moonlight, 1889 (Lot 67  was a good example. Estimated to sell for $80,000-120,000, its destiny was changed when it sold for $150,000.

Meanwhile in the sunshine of Max Dupain’s most recognisable photograph, Sunbaker (Lot 69) elicited significant interest. The highest price ever achieved for another example of this image is $85,000 in June 2016 (Mossgreen Auctions); this example sold for the third highest price at $55,000, on the somewhat standard estimates of $20,000-30,000.

Very large paintings by Robert Dickerson continue to be heavily sought after by collectors with prices between $100,000 and $230,000 being achieved in the past two years. Farmer at Verrierdale Eumundi, 1994 (Lot 72) didn’t disappoint either. Estimated at $60,000-80,000, it sold for $125,000, making it the fourth most valuable picture by this artist to sell at auction.

The sale generated $7.3 million including buyer’s premium, with 116% sold by value and 80% sold by number.

Article exclusively for Australian Art Sales Digest