Nicolas Baudin’s extraordinary journey came full circle as 13 artworks created on his expedition to Australia between 1800 and 1804 made their epic return to this country more than 200 years later, to be auctioned at Deutscher and Hackett in conjunction with rare book dealers Hordern House in Melbourne on 28 November 2018.
Before offering them for sale, almost exactly a year to the day after they were sold through French auction house Baron-Ribeyre & Associés SVV, Deutscher and Hackett and Hordern House went to great lengths to research the 13 early works on paper by Nicolas-Martin Petit (1777 – 1804) and Charles-Alexander Lesueur (1778 – 1846), which was published in a separate catalogue.
One can only imagine the trepidation that, as reported by Terry Ingram for AASD, “the only known Australian in the room” commenced bidding for these artworks, which were considered by the French auction house to be of very little commercial value, with some estimates as low as €400-500.
The lack of any proper research and evaluation by the French auction house destined them all to be sleepers, and the Australian bidder would have been desperately hoping that no-one else had noticed them coming up for auction, but also knowing their value, and ready to dig deep to buy them. Such is the excitement of the arbitrager, and this was indeed a great discovery not just for the buyer, but for Australia.
In his erudite talk on these 13 works prior to their sale, academic and curator John McPhee described the importance of this cache of drawings and watercolours and pointed out that he had hardly ever seen anything like this appearing on the market in his 50 years in the art world.
The stage was certainly set, and especially as this once-off sale also contained some unprecedented estimates for Australian colonial watercolours and drawings.
The gamble therefore was evident for all, with Deutscher and Hackett being very open about the provenance of the works (which is fascinating and documented in detail in the separate catalogue dedicated to the 13 works, accessible also online in the flipbook catalogue. It was clear that they and the Australian buyer in the room in France believed that there was plenty more play to be had from the (far from insubstantial) price of the equivalent of more than AU$850,000 paid for this group of 13 works.
Considered to be the very earliest depiction of a Western Australian scene, Case de la Terre de Lewin (Lot 1) by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, dated as probably June 1801, at the Vasse River near Busselton, carried estimates of $200,000-300,000 underlining the full importance of this postcard sized small pen, ink and graphite drawing, 9.8 x 17.5 cm. This was fully realised as it sold under the hammer for $240,000 hammer price – a very healthy beginning.
Nicolas-Martin Petit’s Full-length Portrait of a Timorese Woman Holding her Baby (Lot 2 , along with (Lot 3), a very similar image, sold for $35,000 hp and $38,000 hp at the low estimates of $35,000-55,000 on each lot.
Lesueur’s A Scene in the Cemetery in the Hills behind Kupang, August – November 1801 (Lot 3 ) sold for $35,000 hp, also at the low expectations of $35,000-45,000.
Perhaps the most evocative image, Petit’s portrait Sauvage de l’île Van Diemen, from 1802 (Lot 6 ), came with estimates of $600,000-800,000, challenging the realms of the highest ever prices paid for a watercolour at auction in Australia, which was set by Sotheby’s in May 2009, with the sale of another colonial work, Conrad Martens’ Campbell’s Wharf for a hammer price of $480,000.
Petit’s portrait measuring 17.7 x 15.1 cm did sell for a spectacular $580,000 hammer, and therefore broke this record, only for this record to be broken two lots later, when Sauvage de l’Île Van Diemen (Lot 8 , 1802, and (slightly) larger at 21.1 x 32.3 cm, sold for $680,000 hp on estimates of $700,000-900,000, and to the same bidder paddle number 884.
Bidder number 884 had more money to spend, and also bought Aboriginal Warrior with Spear (Lot 10), a highly detailed drawing of 27.8 x 21.4 cm estimated at $350,000-450,000, selling below that at $320,000 hp, but nonetheless an extraordinary result.
Interestingly, lot 12 and 13 appear to have been sold as one lot in the French sale, but perhaps they were stuck together and separated, as they were listed as recto / verso (but I speculate). Anyway, bidder 884 was keen to purchase the first of these lots, Aboriginal Woman being competed for by two rival Groups … (Lot 12) and paid $140,000 hp for it on estimates of $150,000-250,000, but chose to ignore the opportunity to purchase the quite similar lot 13 which passed in.
The bet appears to have paid off handsomely for all. Although not all works sold on the night, with hammer prices on sold lots exceeding $2 million, the savvy arbitrager appears to have made at least $1 million on his French purchases of the French artists’ work – Vive la France and Advance Australia.
Subsequent to the auction Recto: (Portrait of a Man in Profile, Head and Partial Shoulders) (Lot 5) was reported sold for $305,000 IBP, further boosting the proceeds from the sale of the collection, and leaving only 4 of the 13 works unsold.
Moving on 200 years, it would be interesting to know what Australia’s earliest botanists might have made of Cressida Campbell’s Gum Blossom, 2000 (Lot 14 ), a watercolour on incised woodblock. While her major works have sailed close to $200,000 in the primary market, we have just witnessed a new auction record for the artist, as this example of her work sold for $100,000 hp on estimates of $75,000-95,000, surpassing by a margin of 10% Banksias, 2004, sold with Sotheby’s in April 2015 for $90,000 hp.
Speaking of the power women of Australian art, this was demonstrated with Del Kathryn Barton’s Girl #7 (Lot 15), also from the early 2000s. Deutscher and Hackett were looking for between $55,000 and $75,000 for this most typical and appealing work by the artist, which sold just above the estimate for $60,000 hp.
Two appealing works by Brett Whiteley, one with provenance to the artist’s daughter Arkie Whiteley, sold well. Melancholy, 1970 (Lot 16) on estimates of $120,000-180,000 achieved a rather ungloomy $160,000 hp, while the much later Rabbit Holes, Blayney, 1991 (Lot 38 ), surpassed its $60,000-80,000 expectations and hopped up to $120,000 hp.
Sculptor Joel Elenberg who died so tragically young at the age of 32 left Australia a great legacy. However, his sculptures are, as we might expect, extremely rare to market. So, to see two such extraordinary examples appear on the market in this round of auction sales, has clearly excited buyers and provided some context to the artist’s practice.
Just a little over a week ago, Sotheby’s sold Mask A, 1979, for a new record price of $520,000 hp, and so perhaps it was not surprising that Makiko, 1980 (Lot 17), estimated at $150,000-200,000, should ignite passions. With two very persistent bidders going head to head, as it were, the winner of this duel won out at the hammer price of $340,000, more than double the low estimate.
If we are to look at precedents, at the same Sotheby’s auction the week before, Yvonne Audette’s Cantata No. 16, 1958, from the artist’s most important period, achieved $85,000 hp. and an artist’s record. Meanwhile, her Composizione, 1959 (Lot 18) in the Deutscher and Hackett sale also looked set for some upward price movement since its last sale in March 2005 at Sotheby’s for $24,000 hp. Perhaps “Bargain of the Evening” then should go to the buyer of this canvas, who snapped it up for just $21,000 hp.
Paintings by Ralph Balson have been popping up everywhere recently at auction, with a new focus on his brightly coloured constructive paintings. While not selling under the hammer, the bidder was matched with the seller before the end of the auction. The auctioneer announced Constructive Painting, 1953 (Lot 19) had just sold for the unusual hammer amount of $112,500, suggesting the purchaser had offered his all-up non-negotiable bid figure, perhaps requiring some quick calculations in order to take into account the buyer’s premium. A sale is a sale in this case, although well below the $150,000-200,000 expectation.
Over recent years, Deutscher and Hackett have achieved some extraordinary results for important international artists. The most memorable of these were the sale of Off, 1963, by British artist Bridget Riley, in August 2013 for $820,000 hp, and Japanese artist On Kawara, when Deutscher and Hackett sold the equally minimalist and very small Jan.18, 1998, last November for $500,000 hp on estimates of $250,000-350,000.
Last night, it was played out with an artist who would perhaps be quite unknown to most Australian collectors, British artist Richard Lin. Again, a minimalist piece, Painting with Aluminium Bar, 1962 (Lot 20 ), carried estimates of $300,000-500,000.
According to Damian Hackett, sales of international art have been a great way of introducing international buyers to Australian art, and that they have attracted new collectors in this way. Given that there were 9 international phone bidders on the Richard Lin work, perhaps they have nurtured a couple more. This large number of contestants meant a considerable battle and a very successful hammer price of $430,000 for this recently acclaimed artist.
Another international offering by British artist Leon Kossoff, View of King’s Cross and Pentonville Road I, 1997 (Lot 21) achieved a respectable $50,000 hp on its estimates of $45,000-65,000.
Charles Blackman’s very large and early Window Light, 1965, (Lot 24), 151 x 130.5 cm, surprisingly failed to sell on the evening. Estimated at $120,000-180,000, it had sold for $86,000 hp in 2004. It was a similar fate for Blackman’s Leaping Children, 1968 (Lot 25), an even larger painting consisting of two parts measuring 213 x 176 cm each. It had sold for $77,000 hp in 1996, but no-one leaped to their rescue on the seller’s $180,000-240,000 hopes.
Reclining Nude, 1980 (Lot 28), the cover lot by John Brack, a substantial and major nude gazing confidently and even quietly smiling at the viewer, carried cover-worthy estimates of $550,000-750,000, selling just below that for $520,000 hp.
There was considerable interest in Emanuel Phillips Fox’s Fishing Boats and Jetty, Le Brusc, c1912-13 (Lot 31 ), estimated at $25,000-35,000. Bidders battled up to $47,000 hp. The same fierce contest ensued for the following two lots, both by Elioth Gruner, both featuring towering trees shading a meandering path and both carrying estimates of $20,000-30,000. The better September Morning, 1926 (Lot 32) achieved the higher price of $42,000 hp, whilst the larger The Poplars, c1926 (Lot 33), sold for $32,000.
Beautiful gouache on paper works by Fred Williams always do well in the auction room, and his Karratha Station, c1979-81 (Lot 36) was no exception. Pitched at $40,000-60,000, it sold for $48,000 hp.
Head auctioneer Roger McIlroy almost passed in Garry Shead’s Homage to Velasquez, 1999 (Lot 40) at $60,000, before a delayed internet bidder snuck in just in time to secure his artist and muse painting for a $65,000 hp on the low estimate.
The Deutscher and Hackett sale established an auction record for another artist, Harold Freedman whose highest price at auction had been just $750. Muralist Freedman created many public artworks in Melbourne and in Canberra for the Australian War Memorial, before being appointed a war artist in World War II. Maintenance Work on a Beaufighter, 1945 (Lot 41 ) was acquired in 1965 from an Officers’ Mess clearance sale, probably for a favourable price. Now offered with estimates $20,000-30,000, bidders did not mess about and drove the selling price to $42,000 hp.
A very attractive early board attributed to Uta Uta Tjangala, Untitled (Yumari), 1972 (Lot 49), sold in the middle of its expectations of $30,000-50,000 for $40,000 hp.
There was also much interest in four unusually large watercolour and gouache works by supreme botanical artist Ellis Rowan (lots 64, 65, 66, 67). Purchased at a Bonhams & Goodman sale in November 2009 for a company collection, and carrying the same estimate of $5,000-10,000, they returned the owners a combined hammer price of $52,000.
As might be expected, there were many floor bidders for works by recently deceased Melbourne artist Mirka Mora. Her Dreaming in the Garden, 2007 (Lot 98), an unusually large canvas of 65 x 181.5 cm, attracted a lot of very competitive bidding on its $10,000-15,000 hopes, and in the event, the $25,000 hammer price set a new auction record for the artist.
Overall the sale produced a very healthy result, with 76% of the lots sold by volume and 72% by number, generating $6.84 million including post auction negotiated sales.
The original article by David Hulme and Brigitte Banziger appeared in Australian Art Sales Digest, 29 November 2018