Australian Art Market History Made As Menzies Sell Brett Whiteley Painting for New Auction Record Price

On 26 November 2020 in Sydney, Menzies offered the painting with the highest auction estimates for an Australian work ever: $5 million to $7 million. Brett Whiteley’s Henri’s Armchair, 1974-75, was presented in a stand-alone black tie event. It was attended by vendor Elizabeth Evatt and family members with front row seats and film crews and press galore, a rarity nowadays in the auction room, as well as a limited number of collectors and industry insiders.

Selling one painting at auction, even a painting of this stature, is always a risk, as a failure to sell would cast judgment on the entire art market and its strength. The monumental painting however lived up to its promise: Bidding started with Menzies head of art and auctioneer Justin Turner with a $4.5 million absentee bid, followed by bid increments of $100,000 from the three phone bidders. The room watched and waited in anticipation, until Turner brought down his gavel at the magic $ 5 million mark.

The buyer was only revealed as a collector from Sydney’s lower North Shore, and they will pay a total of $6.136 million including buyer’s premium for the most expensive painting ever purchased at auction in Australia. A spectacular result achieved in the midst of a global pandemic testing the art market to its extremes, with the art market coming out the winner.

The utterly unpredictably 2020 has already produced two of the highest auction prices ever in Australia: Deutscher + Hackett sold Fred Williams’ Hummock in Landscape, 1967, for $2.82 million in July, and most recently Russell Drysdale’s Going to the Pictures, 1941, for $2.945 million.

Henri’s Armchair is monumental in size at 195 x 302 cm and draws us into the artist’s lounge in his Lavender Bay home with a view leading out to an ultramarine Sydney Harbour. The title references the famous dictum of Henri Matisse, one of Whiteley’s most admired artists, that art could be “for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue”.

The painting was acquired directly from Brett Whiteley and had been held since then in the collection of Clive Evatt QC since 1975, perhaps fulfilling exactly the hope expressed by Henri Matisse.

Any of the leading art auctioneers in Australia will attest it is no mean feat finding and assessing the value of an Australian painting above the million dollar threshold. Only 23 Australian artists and 2 New Zealanders (Colin McCahon and Charles Frederick Goldie) have cleared this milestone, and includes just two women, Ethel Carrick Fox and Emily Kngwarreye. (1)

Even more extraordinary are auction results above $2 million or $3 million, given the Australian art auction market turns over around $110 million generally per year, and the New Zealand market is worth around NZ$30 million.

It’s therefore a long time between drinks, and in this instance $5 million plus paintings appearing on the auction market. The biggest result for a painting sold at auction in Australia prior to last night’s result was for Sidney Nolan’s First Class Marksman, 1946, sold at Menzies in March 2010 for $5.4 million incl. BP (estimates $3 million to $5 million).

Brett Whiteley now holds a total of four paintings in the top ten: My Armchair, 1976, sold for just under $4 million IBP in October 2013 at Menzies, The Olgas for Ernest Giles, 1985, was sold by Deutscher-Menzies in June 2007 for $3.48 million IBP, and Opera House, sold for $2.88 million IBP with Sotheby’s in May 2007. The other artists making the top ten are Sidney Nolan, John Brack, Russell Drysdale and Fred Williams.

(1) The full list of “million dollar” Australian artists includes:

Howard Arkley; Charles Blackman; Arthur Boyd; John Brack; Rupert Bunny; William Dobell; Russell Drysdale; Ian Fairweather; Emanuel Phillips Fox; Ethel Carrick Fox; John Glover; Emily Kngwarreye; Frederick McCubbin; Sidney Nolan; John Olsen; John Russell; Jeffrey Smart; Arthur Streeton; Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri; Albert Tucker; Eugene von Guerard; Brett Whiteley, and Fred Williams.

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