writes Michaela Boland in The Australian on 9 December 2016.
As the nation’s art auction houses draw the shutters on a busy year, sales figures reveal a dynamic buyers’ market in an industry that’s working harder for the money. With just a few small sales outstanding this year, total artwork transactions at auction were $102 million, about 8 per cent down on last year.
Despite the gross downturn, the market offered 2430 artworks, the highest number since records began in 1988. The result of lower gross earnings and so many items on offer was an average artwork price of $7800, the fourth successive decline since 2013 when the average artwork cost $10,500. The Australian market peaked in 2007 when collectors paid on average $15,000 an artwork.
These figures have been inflated for more than 20 years by Menzies auction houses in one guise or other. Menzies periodically cycles artworks through its auction room at guaranteed prices. On account of its unusual practices The Australian reports only distinguished results from Menzies sales, the most distinguished result from 2016 being the fact its fourth sale of the year never eventuated.
Menzies auctions are slated to resume in February next year.
Sotheby’s Australia again topped the tables, with the Australian franchisee of the international brand selling $32.5m worth of art at three sales in Sydney this year, a 69 per cent clearance rate and a new high for the company that in four years has doubled its total sales.
Sotheby’s May curtain-raiser was split across two nights, with a black-tie dispersal of the best 120 works from art dealer Denis Savill’s collection followed by an Important Australian and International Art auction the next evening. Many of Savill’s pieces had been acquired in Sotheby’s auction rooms through the years and sold strongly to gross a combined $14.2m across the two nights.
Savill’s semi-retirement had worried the company at whose auctions the flamboyant dealer could be relied on to generate bidding pizzazz, especially for works by favourite painter Arthur Boyd.
But the auction business hasn’t suffered in the least with Savill’s exit on account of the quiet determination of dealers David Hulme and Brigitte Banziger.
Banziger Hulme fine art consultants stepped up this year to spend $7.86m across many auction houses, hoovering up more than 50 works, a twofold increase on their acquisitions last year to become the nation’s busiest consultants at auction.
Savill’s auction room antics included good-natured teasing of auctioneers, sotto voce commentary and enthusiastic bidding for artworks where the New Zealand-born dealer thought he saw value. His business model of selling his auction-room bargains became increasingly difficult with greater price transparency through the internet.
Banziger Hulme, in contrast, acts explicitly for clients and charges an hourly fee for research or a percentage of the purchase price if successful at auction.
Savill was underbidder more often than he placed the successful bid. The reverse is true with Banziger Hulme.
“We don’t just go in there and put our hand up,” Hulme says. As advisors they direct clients to good acquisitions, undertake conservation research on their behalf and will repair and dispatch items bought on clients’ behalf.
“For collectors it’s been a really good year,” Hulme says. “The quality (available) is good. Think back to the GFC: it was deadbeat in the auction room but it’s getting less good from a collector’s point of view.”
Hulme had to bid several times over the estimates for the works he secured on clients’ behalf at Sotheby’s, but at Bonhams Important Australian and Aboriginal Art sale on November 22 and Deutscher and Hackett’s Important Fine Art Sale on November 30 he bagged some fine bargains.
John Olsen’s Holiday by the Sea, The Blue Bottles Arrive, on the Bonhams cover and owned by a Sydney collector for 20 years, was listed with expectations of selling for $250,000 to $300,000 but Hulme took it away for $220,000 plus the buyers’ premium.
At D+H he was delighted to snare an unusual white Rosalie Gascoigne collage that is evocative of the Sydney Opera House for $55,000 plus premium, again lower than the anticipated $60,000 to $80,000. “We’d bid for a Rosalie Gascoigne for a client last year and didn’t get it, so we were very happy,” he says.
Mossgreen’s final Australian and International Art auction was a bit of a fizzer with 53 per cent of 189 works sold on the night.
Art specialist Petrit Abazi says: “It was our first Sydney multi-vendor art auction, a city where we’ve had success with single-owner sales, but we are in some ways the new kids on the block.”
The star auction lot was Ugo Catani’s Collins Street, which waspainted in 1887, a year after Tom Roberts began his Melbourne CBD painting Allegro Con Brio.
The Catani had been in the same family since it was first sold but was estimated to fetch just $15,000 to $20,000 because only 12 works by the artist had come on to the market in 40 years. It was bought by a private collector for $155,000 including the premium, and Abazi says it is evidence of completion for excellent works with great provenance.
“Trophy paintings are generating bidding wars but in the middle of the market there are bargains to be had,” he says.
Former National Gallery of Victoria Australian art curator Frances Lindsay joined Mossgreen to boost its research capacity and lead the Australian art department at the beginning of the year. She left within nine months, and Mossgreen managing director Paul Sumner declined to comment on the reason for her departure.
The nation’s second busiest art auction house remains D+H, which cleared 85 per cent of artworks in its final sale to report $18.8m in art sales for this year, a 14 per cent increase on the year before.
D+H achieved the year’s star performer in April when it sold John William Lewin’s Five Botanical Studies (c. 1805) for $244,000, 15 times their estimate. The auction house’s other wins included the sale of E. Phillips Fox’s Blue Shutters for $292,800 with the premium, off an estimate of $60,000 to 80,000. Brett Whiteley’s Dawn from his 1974 Lavender Bay series sold for $549,000 including the premium.
When it came to grabbing headlines, however, Sotheby’s dominated the $1m-plus sales for the year. The company sold six artworks for more than $1m, double the number it sold last year.
Sotheby’s million-dollar boys club this year includes Arthur Streeton’s Sydney Harbour, sold in August for $2m; Fred Williams’s Hillside Landscape, whichfetched $1.8m in May; Charles Blackman’s Game of Chess, sold for $1.8m in November; John Bracks’s Two Running Girls, sold for $1.6m in May; Sidney Nolan’s River-Bank, sold for $1.6m in May; and Whiteley’s The Robin and The Moon, sold for $1.1m in August.
Read it in The Australian online