If you have been to the Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne, you will know the Joseph Brown collection which is on permanent display on level 2, a veritable mini history of Australian art, well, up to 2004 at least when it was donated.
Deutscher + Hackett’s selection of 100 highlights from the Cbus Collection of Australian Art offered on 27 July 2022 in Melbourne was a reflection of this, as it was none other than the legendary art dealer who advised the superannuation fund in their collecting journey of indigenous, colonial and twentieth century art between 1990 and 2007.
Looking through the auction catalogue, you could feel the presence of Joseph Brown, not only from the best-known names in Australian art, but even more so from the very large number of sterling examples of these artists’ work. A clearance rate of 95% and six new records set at the D+H auction underscore the appetite for premium works and the willingness from collectors to dig deep if required.
If Deutscher + Hackett wanted to inspire confidence in their auction, they could not have done better than to offer Eugene von Guerard’s On the Americkan Creek Near Woolongong (lot 1) as their first lot. Measuring just 18 x 23 cm, the tiny oil painting from c1859-61 depicting a sunset came with hopes of $80,000-120,000. The sun did shine very brightly on it, with highly spirited bidding taking it to $180,000.
The second lot, another von Guerard, was highly intriguing: West Brook, June 29, 1831, ca.1860 (lot 2), felt like a combination of memories of the artist’s German ancestry in the foreground, the middle ground more English in nature and the background Australian. A very attractive painting, but unable to stimulate the same fervour as lot 1, it sold below the low estimate of $40,000 for $35,000, perhaps reflecting that von Guerard’s European paintings never realise the kind of prices paid for his Australian works.
Regarded as Australia’s first professional artist, exceptional examples of Conrad Martens’ paintings are ridiculously rare to market these days. In 2019, we had View of Sydney Cove, 1838, sold by D+H for $250,000, and then we have to go back to 2015 for the sale of Sydney from Robertson’s Point, 1853, sold by D+H in August of that for $132,000, and Storm over North Head, sold in May 2015 for $120,000.
The beautiful and historic Tahlee, Port Stephens, NSW, 1841 or 1842 (lot 3), was a perfect example to whet the appetite of Martens fans, and it did not disappoint, trouncing the $60,000-80,000 and selling for $100,000.
A nice finish to the colonial art starter was the large watercolour by S.T. Gill from circa 1860 View of Adelaide from Belair Road (lot 4) which achieved a healthy $75,000, well above the $40,000-60,000 expectations.
The 1890s proved a little less sparkling, as the two paintings by Hobart-born William Piguenit sold just around their low estimates. When the Glow is in the West, Lane Cove from Above the Bridge, 1893 (lot 5) sold for $90,000 (est. $100,000-150,000), whilst the smaller and later work Mount Wellington from New Town Bay, c.1898 (lot 6), sold for $32,000 (est. $30,000-40,000).
Similarly for the four Australian Impressionists that followed: Frederick McCubbin’s The Hillside, Macedon, 1904 (lot 7), ticked many boxes, but perhaps lacked a point of interest, and was not able to fire up considerable interest, however it was interesting enough to a buyer who snapped it up for $130,000, $20,000 below the low estimate of $150,000.
Narrow Sydney Harbour scenes by Arthur Streeton like Balmain and Leichhardt from Holtermann’s Tower, c1921 (lot 8) are rarer to market than ever. This bird’s eye view of one of the artist’s most sought after subjects measuring 16.5 x 66 cm sold also just below its estimates of $250,0000-350,000 for $240,000.
Tom Roberts’ charming Portrait of a Girl, 1909 (lot 9) sold for $140,000, well above the low estimate of $100,000.
Moonrise, ca 1894 (lot 10), by the lesser known David Davies, sold for a similar percentage less at $13,000 (est. $15,000-20,000).
Two paintings by Rupert Bunny and Emanuel Phillips Fox suggested a certain tranquillity. Study for Endormies, c1904 (lot 11) and Repose, 1909-11 (lot 13) depicting women asleep and reclining, didn’t wake up buyers as both failed to sell on the night.
Many artworks in the collection had a feeling of ‘rare to market’, however, the prolific Hans Heysen did not. Both exceptional examples exceeded their estimates, with White Gums, 1926 (lot 18) selling for $37,000 (est. $20,000-30,000), and Summer Afternoon, Ambleside, 1936 (lot 100), selling for $33,000, on the same estimates as White Gums.
When Lindsay Bernard Hall’s In the Studio, c1924 (lot 19), sold with Deutscher-Menzies back in 2000, it set an auction record for the artist. So perhaps it is no surprise that it has just set the record again by selling for $60,000 on estimates of $25,000-35,000. Perhaps this is a good lesson for collectors that the best pictures of an artist can still be best 22 years later.
Speaking of the best of an artist’s output: Margaret Prestons Coastal Gums, also known as Australian Gum Blossom, 1929 (lot 21), would have to be the pick of Modernist works on offer in this sale. Estimated at $180,000-240,000, interest in the painting was intense, and when auctioneer Roger McIlroy finally hammered it down, he did so for a new auction record for the artist of $500,000, surpassing by over 20% the previous record of $410,000 set by Bonhams just last year.
After some extraordinary results for tonalist painter Clarice Beckett, there seems to have been some adjustment to the artist’s pricing at auction of late. However, Beach Scene, c1932-33 (lot 22), a particularly lively and colourful work by the artist, inspired bidders and achieved $140,000 on sensible $80,000-120,000 expectations.
Many modernist artists are revered for their print making skills, including Eveline Syme. So it is exciting to see this artist’s painting prowess and also exceptional results in this medium as well. Her highly engaging Tuscan Landscape (verso Siena), c1920s (lot 23) drew in the crowds who completely blew away the $20,000-30,000 estimates and set a deserved new auction record of $120,000 on her work, eclipsing her previous record of $38,000 for the colour linocut Skating, 1929, sold by D+H just in May 2022.
Dorrit Black, another distinguished modernist printmaker, found similar favour in another medium, as her oil painting Farmhouse, Mt. Torrens, c1945 (lot 24) sold for $28,000, well above its $15,000-20,000 hopes.
Russell Drysdale’s enigmatic The Fossicker, 1949 (lot 28), sold solidly at mid-range for $350,000 (est. $300,000-400,000).
Trees in Quarry (lot 30) by Godfrey Miller passed from the prestigious Harold E. Mertz collection in June 2000 to the Cbus collection. Again, we see evidence of a painting sold 22 years ago holding the auction record for the artist for 18 years, until Smith & Singer set the new artist’s record of $190,000 for Summer (1955-57) in 2018. Trees in Quarry was estimated at $150,000-200,000 and sold for $380,000, doubling the previous auction record.
Expectations for Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series of paintings, his most well known and popular, are always high and rarely disappoint. Crossing the River, 1964 (lot 31) was the cover lot and the highest estimated artwork in the sale at $600,000-800,000. It sold to applause from an enthusiastic audience above the high estimate for $880,000 or $1.1 million including buyer’s premium. This makes the result for Crossing the River the sixth highest price ever paid for a Ned Kelly painting.
The Cbus 100 highlights perhaps unsurprisingly contained four artworks by legendary landscape painter Fred Williams. All four sold, however it is interesting to note that the gouache and watercolour on paper Lysterfield Landscape, c1968 (lot 43), achieved a higher price than his early oil paintings from 1960-62 and 1966. Estimated at $50,000-75,000, Lysterfield Landscape, 53.5 x 74 cm, sold for $95,000 to an internet bidder.
Sandwiched between two considerably grittier face pictures by Joy Hester (lot 34) and Albert Tucker (lot 36), Charles Blackmans’ portrait of his wife Barbara, ca 1960 (lot 35), stirred considerable interest. The young woman looking a little uncertain resonated with many, pushing the sale price to $110,000, eclipsing the $45,000-65,000 expectations.
Another painting which succeeded way beyond its expectations was a large and detailed Shoalhaven scene by Arthur Boyd from 1981 (lot 38). Doubling its low estimates, it sold for half a million dollars.
William Delafield Cook’s meticulously painted landscapes have been achieving extraordinary prices recently, massively surpassing estimates as well. His Hillside, Ellerston, 1990 (lot 44) sold similarly, in this case for $370,000 on expectations of $150,000-200,000.
Two modestly sized but beautifully lit, full of movement and perspective that we expect from Jeffrey Smart, sold both on their high estimates: Study for Man with Bouquet, 1981 (lot 46) for $180,000 and Children Playing, 165 (lot 67) for $300,000.
George Baldessin was a sculptor, painter and printmaker, and whilst his highest prices at auction are for his sculptural work, Girl in Striped Dress with Bouquet of Flowers, c1977 (lot 55) achieved $65,000, more than double the high estimate of $30,000 and also more than double the previous record for the artist in this medium.
The last couple of years have been very favourable to the best works by John Coburn coming to auction, and Barrier Reef, 1976 (lot 70), was no exception. The modest colour field work achieved more than twice its high estimate, selling for $62,000 (est. $20,000-30,000).
A light shone on a much less well known South Australian painter than Hans Heysen, Arthur D’Auvergne Boxall. In 1990, his watercolour Building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1930 (lot 84) was sold at Sotheby’s for just $4,000, the second highest price for the artist, whose auction record has stood at $5,200 since 1989 (for a painting of Sydney Harbour) – until last night, when Building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge eclipsed not only this, but also its $10,000-15,000 expectations, selling for $38,000. Perhaps we will see more of Arthur Boxall.
It is not since 2005 that we have seen the kind of prices for marine / historical painter Haughton Forest that we have witnessed in 2021 and 2022, and we don’t need any more proof of this surge in interest than the third to last sale at D+H. River Landscape, Tasmania, c1880 (lot 98), was offered with modest estimates of $10,000-15,000, and sold for a whopping $50,000.
The remainder of the 300 + strong Cbus collection is offered by Deutscher + Hackett in three online only sales, featuring contemporary art closing on 9 August; modern art closing on 16 August and indigenous art closing on 23 August.
Perhaps Chris Deutscher and Damian Hackett would not have contemplated online sales for these works pre-Covid had they been consigned this collection back then. However, the ongoing success of their online auctions has provided them with a separate workable model for “none-bums-on-seats art sales”.
Australian art auction market sales to date are $66.4 million, ahead of 2021 sales which stood at $59.8 million at the same date last year. (These figures do not take into account private sales which are not recorded.)