Leonard Joel smashes it with groundbreaking sale of contemporary Australian art

Even though room audiences in major art auctions have shrunk over the last few years, no auctioneer would have been quite prepared for zero attendees for a major sale of fine art. Recently introduced rules on property inspections and art viewings as well as auctions to restrict gatherings of people meant that Leonard Joel managing director and auctioneer John Albrecht faced just that: a space devoid of room bidders.

In somewhat of a first, the auction house was completely reliant on phone and internet bidding to sell their carefully curated 100 artworks covering a large cross section of emerging and established Australian contemporary art. With consultation from Cameron Menzies, principal of Five Fifty Art Advisory, and direction from Olivia Fuller, head of art at Leonard Joel, the sale was ambitious even in a bull market and not without risk.

Viewing on Invaluable.com, we saw John Albrecht took to the rostrum in a seemingly relaxed and confident manner, and as it turned out, fully justified. The auction achieved an excellent clearance rate of 76% by lots and 74% by value, equal to $614,000 hammer price.

Noel McKenna’s A Fine Bespeckled Gentleman generated strong bidding: it sold for more than twice the low estimate for $8,500 hp.

There was strong bidding for Noel McKenna’s predictably quirky A Fine Bespeckled Gentleman (lot 2): estimated at $4,000-6,000, a number of collectors piped up, selling for $8,500 hp. A self-portrait with horns titled Self Portrait (Paris Riot), 2014 (lot 3) by celebrity artist Ben Quilty sold way beyond its expectations of $10,000-15,000 to sell for $22,000. Reko Rennie’s Message Stick, 2011 (lot 13) also marched above its hoped for $8,000-10,000 and sold for $11,000.

Boy Becoming Man, 2006 (lot 19) by another highly sought after artist, Del Kathryn Barton, sold for $8,500 on $8,000-12,000 estimates. It was also very refreshing to see such a high proportion of women represented in this sale, something that we are more likely to see in a contemporary auction. By numbers, there were 68 artworks by men and 31 by women, and one collaborative artwork between Howard Arkley, Juan Davila and Maria Kosic.


Criss Canning’s very appealing Proteas in Vases, 1992 (lot 21) sold mid-range for $13,500 on $10,000-15,000 expectations.

There was also a healthy diversity of media, including paintings, sculpture and photography.

Bruce Armstrong’s large wood sculpture Owl, 2016-20 (lot 26), estimated at $18,000-24,000 with one buyer wisely giving $20,000 hp.

Perhaps there was some nostalgia in evidence with Michael Zavros’ painting of two stylishly suited males Red/Blue, 2001 (lot 28) selling mid-range for $22,000 on $20,000-25,000 hopes.

John Olsen’s Torres Strait, 2006 (lot 32) carried estimates of $50,000-70,000 and sold for $65,000, which was also the highest price paid for an artwork on the night. Meanwhile, the painting with the highest estimate of the sale at $80,000-120,000, Tim Storrier’s Afternoon Haze (lot 33), did not reach its low estimate and was left unsold, perhaps an indication of the hammer price limitations of “online-only” auctions.

Cockatoo with Probability Diagram, 2010 (lot 44) by Sam Leach was keenly fought for and unsurprisingly flew to land at $10,500, comfortably above its $7,000-9,000 estimates. Paul Boston’s Two Heads, 2006 (lot 47) also exceeded its expectations of $6,000-8,000, selling for $11,000.

Other notable sales include Melinda Harper’s Untitled, 2011 (lot 67), estimated at $3,000-5,000, sold for $6,500 bringing plenty of colour to the purchaser’s day, whilst Peter Tyndall’s A Person Looks at a Work of Art (lot 81) clearly had many persons looking: on hopes of $1,600-2,000, it sold for $7,500.

Whilst Deutscher + Hackett have just held a successful limited fine art auction with 20 lots, selling 17 for a total hammer price of $204,000, they have another 15 lot strong timed online sale with a high estimate of $401,500 which finishes on 6th May.

Article originally published in Australian Art Sales Digest, 6 May 2020