Double No Trouble at Smith & Singer

A few years ago, 30 people at a major fine art auction, like at the Smith and Singer sale on Wednesday evening, September 2, would have looked like a looming disaster. However, stand-in auctioneer, Stuart Davies, chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s International Realty, assured the audience that they were prepared for a large number of phone and internet bidders – which has become the new norm in the art auction room in 2020 – and asked for patience.

Which was indeed required: the 55 lots took close to two hours to sell, but it was worth the time for vendors and auction house alike, as the sale generated a total hammer price of $5.044 million, with 120% sold by value and 87% sold by number, and numerous paintings sold for double the price they had achieved just a few years prior.

It must have been a steep learning curve for Mr Davies auctioneering millions of dollars worth of fine art against his usual sale of high-end property, yet it was clear from the outset that he was an experienced auctioneer. Stuart Davies’ style of auctioneering differed markedly from Smith & Singer head auctioneer Martin Gallon’s affable and more melodic style, who was locked down in Victoria. The more frenetic and speedy style worked on the many phone bidders, sparking big interest and big prices on numerous pieces offered.

Among the 55 lots, Arthur Boyd was well represented with 6 paintings, from the diminutive lots 1 and 2 at just 30 x 19.5 cm to the wall challenging canvasses lots 40 and 41 measuring 259 x 305 cm and 152.5 x 366 cm respectively.

It was hard to pick between Shoalhaven River with Wading Bird and Cockatoos (lot 1) and Shoalhaven River with Flying Bird and Cockatoos (lot 2), both estimated at $30,000-40,000, but clearly the new owner could not bear to see them separated, and bought both, lot 1 for $43,000 hammer price and lot 2 for a comparable $42,000.

Usually putting a painting to auction within five years of its offering means a price reduction, but not in this climate it seems. Fred Williams’ Treefern Hillside, near Tallebudgera (lot 4) was sold by Smith & Singer in May 2018 for a hammer price of $30,000, and last night, the gouache managed a miraculous $48,000.

Speaking of miracles, Basket of Mandarins, 1965 (lot 5) went on to achieve the second highest price ever at auction for a painting by Margaret Olley, after the interior scene Yellow Room, Afternoon, 1990, sold by Sotheby’s in November 2013 for $130,000. Estimated at $40,000-50,000, the mandarins got boosted by lots of vitamin B (bidders) to an extremely healthy $105,000, while the larger, but equally nutritious, Basket of Oranges, 1964, sold in 2018 for $55,000.

A rare and historically important work on paper by Russell Drysdale looked like it might take off bidding-wise, and didn’t disappoint. Midnight Osborne, 1941 (lot 7) on hopes of $50,000-70,000 sold very well, two and half times above the low estimate, for $125,000.

Equally impressive was the same-era still life by William Dobell from 1940 (lot 8), selling for $82,000, almost tripling the low estimate of $30,000.

Although Brett Whiteley’s White Corella, 1987 (lot 12), was stripped of its Greg Norman provenance late in the piece, it found a new home at its low estimate of $600,000.

Denis Savill, who was in the room and as active as ever, would remember Arthur Boyd’s Fishing at Dusk on the Shoalhaven (lot 14), as according to the provenance, it passed through his hands on more than one occasion. The painting caught more than double its low estimate of $80,000, selling for an impressive $165,000.

No luck however for seemingly out of fashion with collectors of Lloyd Rees: his Western Landscape, 1958-61 (lot 15), sold at Christies in May 2002 for $135,000 hammer price, however this time, it could not attract bidders at what appeared to be modest estimates of $120,000-160,000.

Significantly more in favour are impressionist husband and wife team Emanuel Phillip Fox and Ethel Carrick. Emanuel’s In the South of France, ca 1911 (lot 16), offered a colourful reminiscence of holidays past, and sold at the high estimate of $65,000. Meanwhile, another double your money in two years opportunity arose with Ethel’s closer to home In Sydney Botanical Gardens (lot 17). After selling with Smith & Singer in August 2018 for $65,000 hp, it sold again last night for a blossoming $150,000.

Estimates of $50,000-70,000 on Penleigh Boyd’s Springtime, 1921 (lot 16) seemed spot-on, after Deutscher + Hackett had sold a highly comparable “Wattle” painting in November last year for $60,000 hp – or so you would think. Interest however rose to spring fever level, and these blooms sold for $160,000, making this one of the highest auction prices ever achieved for the artist.

Deutscher + Hackett sold the atmospheric The Campfire, Mount Macedon (lot 19) by Frederick McCubbin in August 2013 for $65,000 hp on hopes of $60,000-80,000. Last night, it sold for $135,000, and thus continuing the trend of many paintings selling in this market for double the prices one would normally expect.

Another painting to greatly exceed expectations (although perhaps less surprising) was Albert Namatjira’s Glen Helen Gorge, ca 1945-51 (lot 21). Arts journalist Gabriella Coslovich might reference it tongue-in-check as the “highest price for a Namatjira to sell at auction without a gum tree in it”. Carrying estimates of $38,000-45,000 and extensively exhibited and illustrated in Alison French’s authoritative publication on Namatjira Seeing the Centre, this watercolour sold for twice the high estimate at $90,000. This represents the second highest price at auction for the artist, after Finke River Mission sold in August 2016 for $100,000, also with Smith & Singer.

Unsurprisingly, Elioth Gruner’s highly atmospheric Colour Note (with Cows), 1917 (lot 23) sold for $38,000 just under the high estimate of $40,000. Highly surprising however was the new auction record of $315,000 set for Gruner with of A Land of Wide Horizons, Michelago, 1922 (lot 24), but no surprise to Denis Savill however who underbid the work. Land of Wide Horizons sold for more than three times its high estimate of $100,000, eclipsing the $220,000 for On the Sands, 1920, set by Menzies in April 2018.

A perhaps unusual occurrence for saleroom darling Del Kathryn Barton was the failure to launch of her Weird Seed, 2017 (lot 35), estimated at $180,000-220,000, and one of the few pass-ins on the night.

On the other hand, the more generally out of favour at auction William Robinson did create great interest: the large Back Creek Gorge to Coomera, 1994, (lot 39), with hopes of $250,000-350,000 did very well selling for $410,000, pushing this painting onto the 4th highest price at auction for the artist. Perhaps this will spark renewed interest in the Robinson’s major works in this environment.

Never out of favour, Arthur Boyd’s monumental Bathers, Shoalhaven Riverbank and Clouds, 1984-85 (lot 40), sold for $440,000 to a room bidder, also floating above the high estimate of $400,000, whilst his Triptych from the Australian Scapegoat, 1988 (lot 41), failed to find a buyer with a big enough wall to house the massive work.

The previous night, Bonhams had held a mini-sale online with 34 lots. The sale turn-over was a more modest $364,000, but very respective sold-by figures of 95% by value and 74% by numbers. A Margaret Olley still life Zinnias and Plums, 1985 (lot 22) was the most successful lot, selling for $60,000 on estimates of $45,000-55,000.

Article originally published in Australian Art Sales Digest