On an evening in Sydney with an arctic chill in the air, Sotheby’s sale of Important Australian Art in Sydney on 28 August 2018 did break a number of Australian auction records. But one still has to wonder about the random nature of selling art in the auction room, which can particularly be observed in a tight sale containing just 67 lots. Perhaps before bidding commences, the audience might be asked to “Hot or Not” the artwork with a thumbs up or down in the Amanda-Keller-style of “The Living Room”.
The art of Del Kathryn Barton is clearly furnace hot at the moment, so no need to ask for a thumbs up, as paddles were blazing to acquire this first lot in the sale. The monumental large work from 2004, titled Farewell, (Lot 1 ) was an excellent starter with extremely wide estimates of $150,000-350,000, suggesting great possibilities for this painting; it actually settled nonetheless at a very healthy $200,000 hammer price.
The number 2 Australian hot artist of the moment coincidentally, or perhaps not, is Cressida Campell. With an exhibition slated at Simon Lee Gallery in London in 2019, you would think the only way is up price-wise for Campbell’s work. There has been an insatiable appetite to acquire her work in the auction room. The highest hammer price however dates back to April 2015 when Banksias, 2004, sold at $90,000. Perhaps the estimate of $90,000-120,000 for Wheat Fronds and Sky, 2016 (Lot 2 ). was just too bullish for most, as this – nonetheless exceptional – work got the thumbs down from the audience last night.
Not simply hot, but rather parched, Lin Onus’ Frogs, 1988 (Lot 3 ), a painting of a cracked, bone dry landscape is about as poignant an image in today’s drought-stricken Australian climate as you can get. The painting sold to one of Onus’ loyal collectors for $150,000, right on the low estimate.
There was fierce competition in the room for a Gordon Bennett Landscape from 1993 Edge (With Displaced Point of Identification) (Lot 4 ) which sold nicely mid-range of the estimates at $35,000, and similarly a monochrome townscape by Howard Arkley, Tudor House, Fitzroy Gardens, 1987 (Lot 6 ), had numerous bidders to secure this piece of real estate at $42,000, just above the low estimate.
Meanwhile there was a thumbs down for the upside down Woman in a Landscape, 1998 (Lot 7 ) by Juan Davila, which failed to sell on its expectations of $60,000-80,000.
Nicholas Harding’s In the Swell, 2006 (Lot 9 ) suffered no such fate, as this much feted artist’s painting went above its $25,000 high estimate, selling for $28,000.
Clearly, there were a number of bidders who had already assigned a suitable location for Dale Frank’s dreamy but massive 200 x 260 cm Conara Cleveland Epping Forest, also from 2006 (Lot 10 ). On estimates of $30,000-40,000, it also got a massive thumbs up with $55,000 hammer price.
Speaking of dreamy: there was also a massive battle for a classic Clarice Beckett Beaumaris painting (Lot 15 ), which achieved a red hot $46,000 on expectations of $25,000-35,000.
Two equally fabulous works by Grace Cossington Smith brought out the buyers too, with Chair in the Room, 1960 (Lot 16 ) selling for $68,000, well above its $45,000 high estimate, while Fruit in the Window, 1957 (Lot 17 ) with one-time Joseph Brown provenance and estimated at $200,000-250,000, proved to be even more tantalizing, and was only secured at $370,000.
Perhaps someone had turned up the heating, as the excitement continued with Fred Williams’ Orange Hill (1966-67) (Lot 18 ), last sold by Menzies in September 2004 for $275,000 hammer price. It simmered along nicely to a sale price last night of more than three times its previous sale price in 2004 for $900,000 hammer, surely to the delight of the seller.
There was no boil over however for Brett Whiteley’s Harbour (Grey Day), 1978 (Lot 19 ). This magnificent and easy on the eye picture purchased from Australian Galleries almost exactly 40 years ago, and the cover lot of the catalogue, had all the potential for a $2 million plus sale.
Given Opera House was sold by Sotheby’s in May 2007 for $2.4 million IBP on the same estimates of $2 to $3 million, and The Olgas for Ernest Giles, 1985, achieved $2.9 million IBP at Menzies in June 2007 on expectations of $2.25 to $3.25 million, Harbour (Grey Day) looked particularly ripe for re-sale, but did not get the thumbs up on the night. (For what it’s worth, we think it’s hot.)
In fact, further analysing the data of Australian Art Sales Digest reveals that this is only the fifth time in Australian art auction history that estimates at or above $2 to $3 million have been set for an Australian painting. The other two were $3 to $5 million for Sidney Nolan’s First Class Marksman, sold for $5.4 million IBP by Menzies in 2010, and Whiteley’s My Armchair estimated at $3 to $4 million, selling for $3.9 million IBP also at Menzies in 2013.
A number of paintings by for example John Brack, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin have sold above $2 million, but with lower estimates and therefore above expectations.
An interesting Australian record however was set last night for Brett Whiteley for a tapestry titled The Artist’s Studio (Lot 24 ), created by Pinton Frères in Aubusson/France in 1976, and held in a private London collection since 1979. Frenetic bidding ensued on its $100,000-120,000 estimate, shuttling to the Australian tapestry record of $175,000 hammer price.
It was a tale of two bridegrooms from Arthur Boyd’s significant Bride paintings. Drowned Bridegroom (1959) (Lot 20 ) rose up to meet the buyer’s expectations, selling for the low estimate of $1.6 million, and in the process creating a new record price for the artist. The previous record was set also by Sotheby’s in August 2012, when Bride Running Away 1957 sold for $1.4 million hammer price. Meanwhile, Bridegroom in Black Creek, 1960 (Lot 43 ) was left languishing on estimates of $650,000-850,000.
A couple of spectacular recent results for Ralph Balson in the James Fairfax collection at Deutscher + Hackett and from the Michael Hobbs collection at Bonhams have lifted interest in the artist’s abstract compositions. Non-Objective Painting, 1955 (Lot 26 ) at Sotheby’s has added to this trend, which is putting Balson firmly on the “Hot” list. It sold at the high estimate on expectations of $80,000-100,000.
Two Streeton water views painted 30 years apart, San Giovanni a Paolo, 1908 (Lot 29 ), and Hobart, 1938 (Lot 30 ), were treated with much warmth from an appreciative audience. While the Venice picture had estimates of $200,000-300,000, the Tasmanian scene was expected to sell for slightly less, given its lower estimate of $180,000-220,000, perhaps due to its later vintage. However, the inherent charm and grandeur of the Tasmanian vista was enough to see both paintings sell for the exact same hammer price of $220,000.
Another double bill was represented by Rupert Bunny. A Word of Advice (1908) (Lot 31 ), given the large fan in the image, offered us a painting suggesting a somewhat balmy day, and it lead to blistering bidding ending at $290,000 hammer price, on estimates of $250,000-350,000.
Then A Provincial Town in France (1904) (Lot 32 ) depicting a most summery feel and sold at a cooler low estimate of $400,000.
Another European subject, A Lake Scene in Cumberland (Lot 34 ), painted 70 years earlier by John Glover, certainly came in from the cold to hit a scorching $115,000 on its modest $40,000-60,000 suggestion.
Art dealer Bob Lavigne just snook in to capture a new Australian record for Godfrey Miller’s Summer (1955-57) (Lot 42 ), a record that amazingly had been held for 18 years when Trees in Quarry sold in 2000 with Christies as part of the Harold E. Mertz collection for $180,000 hp. Lavigne paid $190,000 hammer price and $231,800 IBP to secure the picture just above the $180,000 low estimate.
Three Albert Tucker paintings were offered at Sotheby’s, including a smallish Intruder with Parrots, 1967 (Lot 59 ), with an equally small estimate of $10,000-15,000. These parrots were clearly of the tropical variety, as a searing $34,000 was achieved for this diminutive work with Kerry Stokes collection provenance.
It was the second time that Charles Blackman’s A Dream of Flowers (Lot 60 ) appeared at auction. In 2010, it sold also at Sotheby’s on $18,000-25,000 for $32,000 hammer price (or $38,400) including buyer’s premium. Yesterday, it was on offer again with $25,000-35,000 estimates, indicating very reasonable seller’s expectations. The dream took flight, and it sold for more than double the low estimate for $53,000.
Second-last but not least, Harold Septimus Power’s Portrait of a Young Woman with Two Spaniels (Lot 66 ), and with a saleroom notice for a different title The Blue Setter, was listed with a $15,000-20,000 estimate. The multitude of bidders set up a blistering pace for this portrait with a sophisticated 1920s English country atmosphere, quite atypical for Power, better known for his horses and plough scenes. After reaching $66,000, a $75,000 return bid followed straight away – however, it was not the expected knock-out blow which came from the $81,000 phone bid, four times the high estimate.
So what would Amanda Keller say of the sale? HOT.
Original article by David Hulme and Brigitte Banziger appeared in Australian Art Sales Digest, 29 August 2018
Sale Referenced: Important Australian Art , Sotheby’s, Sydney, 28/08/2018