Bridget’s London Blitz – “Off” goes off

Whilst not the exact inspiration for Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of a world-famous auctioneer in his new movie ‘The Best Offer’, lead auctioneer Roger McIlroy was still a big help for the Oscar winning actor, passing on his knowledge of the craft of fine art auctioneering. Certainly when it comes to performing, McIlroy was not far off an Oscar winner of his own last night at Deutscher + Hackett’s sale of 166 lots of Australian and International Fine Art at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney.

In total Deutscher + Hackett sold $6.45 million of art, with clearance rates of 70% by volume and 86% by value.

The sale featured works from two significant collections – 57 lots from Lex Aitken, the recently deceased interior designer, and his partner, fashion designer Alfredo Gonzalez, and 8 paintings by Stephen Bush from the John L. Stewart collection, New York.

The ten works by British master abstractionist Bridget Riley (lots 2 – 11) from the Aitken/Gonzalez collection were the stellar performers of the night. Deutscher + Hackett already held the Australian record for the sale of a Riley painting, selling ‘Green, surrounded by Violet and Orange’, 1969, for an $80,000 hammer price in May 2012. This work had also been consigned by Lex Aitken, perhaps as a test of the market for the release of more works to D+H. It turned out to be an inspired move.

Damian Hackett said that the auction house had been instructed by Lex Aitken to sell all works, so accordingly conservative estimates abounded, in particular Off, 1963 (Lot 2) at $60,000 – $80,000. It achieved the extraordinary hammer price of $820,000, more than ten times the high estimate.

View lot images at Deutscher + Hackett.

Large paintings by Riley can and do sell in the millions of dollars, however, important a work as Off is, it still measures just a tiny 24.5 x 29 cm, and decidedly looked so when on view on the night, before Roger McIlroy hammered it down for its overseas trip.

Such was the level of interest in the ten Riley lots, that even with every staff member on phone duty, a good number of external consultants were harnessed to ring a long list of Riley hopefuls. It turned out to be more like watching a Wimbledon tennis match, with bids shooting across from one bank of phones to the other, with occasional shots from the 100 strong crowd. 

The closest comparison to Off, 1963, in size and style (though not medium) to be found in international auction sales records is Study ’66 R+Angle Curve No 1 (1966). This 30.5 x 30.5 cm gouache sold at Christies, London, in June 2012 for a hammer price of £54,000 (AUD84,000).

Ronan Sulich, Christie’s representative in Australia, told us he had spotted Off, 1963, tucked away in a corner behind a plant, hardly noticing it, when he had been organising the sale of the British and European art and antiques from the collection in London later this year.

The enthusiasm for all Riley lots continued unabated, with Study for White Disks, 1964 (Lot 3) and Untitled No. II, 1966 (Lot 4), the most hotly contested, both estimated at $20,000-$30,000 and selling for $120,000 hammer and $130,000 respectively. The top priced coloured work Bright Green, Blue and Red, surrounding one another, Study 4, 1973, (Lot 6) went for $82,000 hammer on estimates of $30,000-$50,000.

Clearly, this was a coup of a sale of the artist’s work, with a British dealer going so far as to suggest to Hackett that it may help re-define Riley’s pricing internationally. 

Estimates were also keen on the Australian works from the Aitken/Gonzalez collection: Jeffrey Smart’s colourful Study for Autobahn (Lot 12) selling for a below estimate but nonetheless healthy $130,000 hammer, and the Brett Whiteley abstract works (lot 13, lot 14, lot 15) with The Matthieson Gallery, London provenance doing well, achieving over or on their high estimate.

Arthur Boyd’s nicely titled The Artist’s Camp, 1973 (Lot 16) sold for a good mid-range estimate of $105,000.

Works by Rupert Bunny can be hit and miss, from the brilliant to the downright bland, so offering seven on one night was always going to be challenging. Five of these were from the Aitken/Gonzalez estate, and keen estimating got Summer Afternoon (Lot 17) away for $35,000 hammer, below the $40,000-$60,000 estimate; likewise The Nymph of Salmacis, c1919 (Lot 18) sold for $22,000 hammer on a low estimate of $25,000. Niobe, c1919 (Lot 25) and Two Palm Trees (Melbourne Botanic Gardens) (Lot 26) from the Aitken/Gonzalez collection failed to sell, as did the Bunny works from other vendors, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Jeanne Morel, c1902 (Lot 79), estimates $35,000-$45,000 and Rural Scene with Haystack (France), c1922 (Lot 136), estimated at $15,000-$20,000. The ink drawing Nude Kneeling (Lot 164), again with Aitken/Gonzalez provenance, happily found a buyer at $1,500 hammer, making three out of seven sales for Bunny on the night.

The two Clement Meadmore sculptures again from the Aitken/Gonzalez offering, sparked interest and spirited bidding: the early work Untitled, c1960, (Lot 27) secured $9,000 hammer, well over its $4,000-$6,000 estimate. The much more polished and visually appealing Hob Nob 1992 (Lot 28) flew past the top estimate of $20,000, selling for $21,000 hammer.

Rick Amor’s The Island, 2003 (Lot 30) made a respectable and just under low estimate $48,000 hammer.

There were two offerings by Godfrey Miller, both keenly sought, and Trees and Mountain, Moonlight, 1957-62 (Lot 31) selling for $115,000 hammer on estimates of $65,000-$85,000, making this the 5th highest price ever paid for a painting by the artist. It was purchased by consultant Bob Lavigne who underbid Apples, 1944-46 (Lot 32), which sold for mid-range at $60,000 hammer.

Justin O’Brien’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, c.1958 (Lot 34) didn’t need a miracle to take it into the realms of one of the artist’s best pictures, and it deserved to secure the top estimate of $100,000 hammer, matching the price paid at Lawson’s in 2001 for the comparable work The Miraculous Draught of Fishes No.1.

Jeffrey Smart’s attractive work Storage Tank, 1975 (Lot 35) had an attractive estimate and easily found a buyer at $65,000 hammer. However, The Park, 1960 (Lot 36) was perhaps a big ask at the $280,000-$340,000 estimate and passed in; it had sold previously with Sotheby’s in 2007 at the height of the market for a $190,000 hammer price, and $228,000 including buyer’s premium, in a year when the average price for a painting by Smart based on 26 sales was just under $270,000. Since then, average prices have remained quite constant: for the 63 recorded sales since 2008, the average price was $272,000.

One might have expected some price growth for Sinopia for the Observer, 1983 (Lot 37), purchased at Deutscher-Menzies in 2001 for a hammer price of $120,000 and $140,500 IBP, well before Smart’s prices had started to rise to the level they now inhabit; however, this very large Smart at 101 x 145 cm failed to sell on the $160,000-$220,000 estimate. Smaller works by the artist all found new homes, First Bus by the Tiber, 1977/8 (Lot 98) achieved $28,000 hammer,, while The Last Train, 1989 (Lot 125) sold for $6,000 hammer, and the Figure Study for the Terrace (Lot 161), a minuscule but delightful pencil sketch signed To Lex [Aitken] also sold for $6,000 hammer on a $3,000-$5,000 estimate.

The cover lot, Fred Williams’ Gum Trees in a Landscape IV, 1969 (Lot 38), was much admired, but perhaps too sublime and minimal for most, however the vendor was prepared to meet the market as it sold for the still healthy $350,000 hammer, but below the low estimate of $380,000. The by-comparison action-packed You Yangs, 1966 (Lot 39), a gouache on paper, sold this time on the low estimate of $40,000; this is $10,000 less than the result it achieved in 2007.

Whether it is due to a lack of good works by Charles Blackman coming on the market or a lack of interest in the artist’s work, 2013 is the first year since at least 2003 that Blackman has not been represented in the top ten most traded Australian artists by auction value. Or course there is still time to make this up, and a couple of sales of paintings from his ‘Alice in Wonderland’ series would surely put him back there. Yesterday, Two Schoolgirls, 1953 (Lot 40) failed to sell on the $60,000-$80,000 estimate.

The market may suffer from a certain Nolan fatigue subsequent to Bonham’s large offering of early works, with two major paintings at Sotheby’s on 27 August failing to sell, as Jane Raffan suggested in her AASD review of this sale. At Deutscher + Hackett, Nolan encountered mixed fortunes: Sturt on the River Bank, 1948 (Lot 41) sold in 2007 with Sotheby’s for $174,000 IBP on estimates of $90,000-$120,000, this time round, the $200,000-$300,000 estimate was clearly a bit rich for most and it passed in. Two of the other four offerings of 1940s Nolans however did sell: St. Kilda Pier (Dark Head), c1944-45 (Lot 48) for $60,000 hammer, and Bather, 1945 (Lot 49) for $55,000 hammer, both below their low estimates.

Arthur Streeton was another artist to have hits and misses: Even though A Road to the Kurrajong, c. 1896 (Lot 42), sold for $380,000 hammer below the low estimate of $400,000, this was an excellent result for this small and important painting, and it missed the top ten auction price paid for a Streeton by just one spot. The Rialto Bridge, Venice c1908 (Lot 19) was snapped up as one of the bargains of the night at $45,000 hammer. Somewhat awkward in its perspective, this big early work changed hands at $15,000 below low estimate. Sadly, three more large Streetons – two dramatic landscapes and a seascape (lot 45, lot 46 and lot 47) – failed to find buyers at not outlandish estimates.

Whilst Clarice Beckett’s Evening, St. Kilda Road, c.1930 (Lot 20) attracted a lot of interest and sold extremely well at $80,000 hammer, notably $10,000 over the high estimate, the same was not the case for the steal of the night Ranunculi with Coral Beads, c1924 (Lot 21). Lex Aitken bought the work at Christies in 2000 for $96,000 IBP, the then highest price at auction for the artist, remaining in second spot today. Last night this gem of a painting was obviously missed by most, but not by the lucky bidder who paid just $45,000 hammer for it – good buying indeed.

The feature sculpture of the night was Joel Elenberg’s Mask A, 1979-80 (Lot 56); estimated at $100,000-$150,000, it sold well to a room bidder for $130,000 hammer.

William Robinsons’ Summer Landscape Numinbah, 2001 (Lot 60) also did well, selling comfortably above the high estimate for $235,000 hammer, on estimates of $150,000-$200,000.

Of the 8 Stephen Bush works offered, five sold on the night, the most valuable was Typecast, 1998 (Lot 71), selling for $39,000 hammer.

Very pleasing and easy on the eye watercolours by John Olsen both found buyers at good prices, Swimming Frogs and Dragonflies (Lot 52) selling for $84,000 hammer on estimates of $70,000-$90,000, and Spring by the Little River, 1993 (Lot 53) for $110,000 hammer or $10,000 below the low estimate.

Lloyd Rees’ Looking East – Mid-Afternoon, 1978 (Lot 54) took up a whole wall to itself at the Sydney viewing, and no doubt will do the same in its new home; selling at 8% below its low estimate for $350,000 hammer.

Super-collector Pat Corrigan seemed keen to secure a few of the minor lots, bidding but not going all the way to secure a Bill Henson photograph (Lot 120) which sold for $13,000 hammer, nor the next offering, a Ken Unsworth sculpture (Lot 121) which sold for $5,500 hammer. He wasn’t to go home empty-handed, eventually settling for a Harold Cazneaux photograph, Dorothy Gadsby, (Roseville) Profile, 1931 (Lot 126), which he snapped up for just $2,800 hammer.

Article originally published in Australian Art Sales Digest, 29 August 2013

Written by

Hi, my name is Brigitte Banziger and I am an art consultant and manager at Banziger Hulme Fine Art Consultants, Australia's art valuation and art advice experts. We specialise in art valuations for insurance purposes, for family division, deceased estates, superannuation funds and market values, and advise clients regarding purchase and sales of art (art brokerage). Our services are sought by private clients, companies, public galleries and councils alike. Our aim is to provide professional service with friendly, approachable manner.

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