Rarely has the Cell Block Theatre at the National Art School seen so many art industry personalities, insiders and habitués as at the Deutscher + Hackett’s fine art auction on 10 April 2019. Many would have been there to observe how Charles Blackman’s Alice on the Table (lot 9) fared, after the artist’s Sleeping Alice offered just the previous night at Sotheby’s did not awaken. With hopes of $1.5 to $2 million, Alice on the Table sold for $1.35 million hammer price or $1.647 million including buyer’s premium – not exactly flying, but respectably standing up for herself. In the event, auction records were set for Bronwyn Oliver’s Unity (lot 2) with $330,000 hp and Ian Fairweather’s Barbecue (lot 23) selling for $1.4 million hp. The sale achieved a total of $9.008 million IBP, with 100% sold by value and 87 % sold by volume.
Continuing on from the night before at Sotheby’s with two extraordinary results and auction records for two interior scene woodblocks selling for $201,000 and $260,000 IBP, Cressida Campbell expanded her commanding presence on the Australian art market at Deutscher + Hackett – and perhaps suitably at the National Art School, as this is where the artist graduated from in 1979 and where she developed her unique print making techniques. These new game changing results that practically doubled her prices overnight are highly likely to affect the primary market and will no doubt be watched closely by Campbell’s primary dealers Philip Bacon in Brisbane and international dealer Simon Lee with galleries in London, New York and Hong Kong, and will surely have a lasting effect on her prices and standing.
Speaking of commanding presence: Campbell’s The Ebro, Gore Bay, 1987 (lot 1) is a striking early example of her genius, rich in colour. Unsurprisingly, its $40,000-60,000 estimates were looking rather tame compared to the $80,000 hammer price, whilst even a large edition screenprint of 99 The Verandah also from 1987 (lot 81) sold for $12,000 hp, doubling the low estimate of $6,000-9,000, aptly illustrating auctioneer Scott Livesey’s comment on Cressida Campbell being “The Talk of the Town”.
Sadly, Bronwyn Oliver is no longer with us, but we are at least fortunate that the legacy of her art is so exceptional. It is however exceptionally rare. Unity, 2001 (lot 2) was sold by Deutscher + Hackett previously almost ten years ago in 2010 for $110,000 hp. The rise in value has also been considerable for these major works. A most comparable sculpture slightly smaller in diameter, Blaze, 2003, was sold also by Deutscher + Hackett in May 2017, achieving the second highest price at auction of $240,000 hp. However, the re-emergence of such an important and scarce work by Oliver was enough to excite buyers leaving the expectations of $200,000-250,000 well behind, finally selling for $330,000 hp, a new auction record for Bronwyn Oliver.
Leading the way into a number of abstract compositions by various artists was Rosalie Gascoigne’s Honey Flow, 1985 (lot 3). The vertical wood arrangement perhaps discouraged some buyers, and it sold for $100,000 hp, below its $120,000-160,000 estimates.
A particular favourite of D+H director Damian Hackett, Ralph Balson’s dreamy Matter Painting, 1962 (lot 4), was strongly bid, selling for $34,000 hp and above the high hope of $30,000. Following this abstract theme, Godfrey Miller’s similarly dated Crucifixion, 1961-64 (lot 5), achieved a handsome $85,000 hp on expectations of $60,000-80,000.
Rocking through those glorious 1960s, while Yvonne Audette’s Conversations between the Stars, 1964 (lot 6) didn’t light up the heavens, it still sold at the low estimate for $70,000 hp, the fourth highest price for the artist at auction. The last of this little run of delightful abstract paintings elicited considerable interest. Dale Frank’s Jeremy Huguenot, 2000 (lot 7) doubled its low estimate of $25,000, selling for $50,000 hp, suggesting a number of potential buyers had already picked out the perfect spot for it in their home.
The much talked about UK collection of paintings containing lots 9 to 20 included the ultimate trophy picture Alice on the Table, 1956 (lot 9), from Charles Blackman’s iconic and ground breaking Alice in Wonderland series of paintings. It sold below its low $1.5 million estimate, but nonetheless for a very lofty $1.35 million, placing the work firmly as the third highest price ever paid for a painting by Charles Blackman, behind Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, 1956, sold by Sotheby’s in 2017 for $1.55 million hp and The Game of Chess, 1945, sold in 2016 also by Sotheby’s for 1.475 million hp.
The surprise non-sale of the evening would have to be Justin O’Brien’s serene Two Figures in a Room, 1990 – 1993 (lot 10), from the same important UK collection. With what appeared to be very enticing estimates starting at $150,000, it failed to excite any bidding enthusiasm and passed in.
There was more interest for Arthur Boyd’s The Old Mine, 1951 (lot 11): this painting with its rich detail and ethereal glow had been off market for 25 years after selling with Sotheby’s in April 1995 for $140,000 hp. Last night it sold for a healthy $350,000 on hopes of $350,000-500,000,
William Strutt’s Slack Times, 1883 (lot 13) achieved the highest price at auction for the artist when sold at Menzies in April 1998 of $170,000 hp. As we know, art goes up and art goes down, and changes in taste no doubt affect a painting of this kind. Victorian sentimentalist art like the one offered would be a difficult sell I imagine without a large reduction in price expectation. Estimated at $200,000-350,000 it failed to find a buyer on the night.
More joy was just around the corner however: whilst Fred Williams gouache paintings often feel undervalued in the market, there was no such reticence to pay a higher price, in fact the highest price for a work on paper by this master of the Australian landscape. Lysterfield, c1968 (lot 24) was estimated at a modest if not unexpected $45,000-65,000 which fired the interest of several keen bidders. After much deliberation from phone bidders, auctioneer Roger McIlroy finally hammered it down for $87,000 hp, while the following lot Australian Landscape, 1969 (lot 25), a major oil by Fred Wiliams, sought to meet buyer expectations rather than the vendor’s, selling for $440,000 hp on $500,000-650,000 hopes.
It was a similar tale for John Brack’s Four Pairs and a Single, 1971 (lot 26). The painting with Joseph Brown Gallery provenance sold at $75,000 below the low estimate of $550,000 for $475,000, perhaps enabling the buyer to purchase another picture with their savings. They could have secured David Boyd’s Truganini – The Drowning of her Betrothed, 1959 (lot 28) had they wished, as it sold for $68,000 hp, just below expectations of $70,000-90,000.
There is inevitably great joy in consigning pictures for sale at $1 million plus for a fine art auctioneer. Consigning two therefore would be double the joy. On the downside, if neither sell, it potentially leaves a very big hole in your sale results and your bottom line too no doubt. Million dollar plus painting number 1, Blackman’s Alice on the Table (lot 9) successfully made it, but what of lot 23? Would the monumental masterpiece Barbecue, 1963 by Ian Fairweather (lot 23) run out of gas before it reached the magical million dollar mark? Estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, this was in line with Gethsemane, 1958, the painting de-accessioned from the Art Gallery of NSW collection in 2010, and sold with Deutscher + Hackett for $800,000 hp. Hopes were high that Barbecue, an equally if not more spectacular work, would eclipse this result.
After an absentee bid of $750,000 got things moving, it was Damian Hackett’s phone against a gentleman in the room on the phone to his client. Bidding was orderly and consistent between these two very serious bidders, the magic million dollar achieved by the gent in the room. Mr Hackett’s bidder was quick to come back with his own $50,000 increment bid, and so it went $1.1 million / 1.15 million until the calm, cool and collected room bidder ultimately triumphed over Hackett securing the ultimate prize and what could only be considered as an outstanding result for the vendor of this painting selling for $1.4 million hp, a truly ground breaking new auction record for this much lauded artist.
The other Ian Fairweather offered on the night, Sea Anemones, 1957 (lot 32), from the Kerry Hill AC collection, Singapore, also did well: estimated at $200,000-250,000, it sold comfortably mid-range for $230,000 hp.
The vibrant and engaging Autumn Hillside, Heidelberg, c1900 (lot 37) by Emanuel Phillips Fox sold below its low estimate of $30,000 for $28,000 hp. Not so for the next lot, his wife’s Ethel Carrick Fox’ Flower Market, Nice, c1926 (lot 38): it attracted numerous bids and achieved a very nice $55,000 hp.
On the back of the fabulous John Peter Russell exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Rocher au Chien, Clos Marin, Belle-Ile, 1897 (lot 39), was a gift from the artist and was somewhat of a gift to the buyer too. It went to a room bidder for $320,000, $20,000 above its low estimate.
A stunning still life painting with fruit and flowers by Hans Heysen (lot 42) – famously rejected by Anna Pavlova in prima donna fashion by letter in June 1928 – was embraced by its new owner last night. Estimated at $65,000-85,000, the high point of expectations was just enough to secure this major work.
The luminescent Yarra Sunset, c1930 (lot 43) by Clarice Beckett hit the right note with buyers, selling exactly on its low estimate hopes.
Mortimer Menpes’ Archer, c1897 (lot 63) was aiming high: bidding was furious and the $15,000-20,000 estimates were overshot very quickly, with the room bidder finally giving way to the persistent phone bidder who ultimately paid $60,000 hp, three times the high estimate.
Demand for the best works by Ben Quilty at auction is consistently high. Although modest in size at 21 x 21 cm, The Dead Pirate, 2005 (lot 75), a gift from Quilty to deceased artist Adam Cullen, garnered large interest, as this pirate sailed way above the high estimate of $15,000, finally becalmed at $24,000 hp.
Guy Boyd’s bronze sculptures rarely surpass $10,000 at auction, and given the $5,000-7,000 estimate on Lovers Changing into a Tree, c1969 (lot 94), the auctioneer thought them appropriate. Bidders however had a different view, and as one dogged room bidder found out, he at least had the vocal support of the audience who were on his side when he missed out on this exquisite example of Boyd’s work at $21,000 hp, the third highest price for a Guy Boyd sculpture at auction.
The original article by David Hulme and Brigitte Banziger appeared in Australian Art Sales Digest, 11 April 2019.
Sale referenced: Important Australian and International Fine Art, Deutscher + Hackett, Sydney, 10 April 2019