Sidney Nolan Reigns Supreme at Menzies’ Sydney Auction

Menzies’ final major art sale of 2022 comprised a whopping 153 offerings, of which a third – the first 49 lots – came from the extensive collection of the late Millie Phillips, Australia’s first female mining magnate and highly successful businesswoman. The auction held in Menzies’ Kensington, Sydney, premises proved to be just as successful, with 86% sold by number and 102% sold by value. The sale raised $8.46 million including buyer’s premium.

Somewhat appropriately, the night started with cocky bidding from the room. Cockatoo (Lot 1) offered us a strong charcoal, polymer paint and collage work on paper by Brett Whiteley from 1988. Auctioneer Martin Farrah struggled to keep up with the bids as he declared “broke my pen on the first lot!” Highly competitive bidding quickly overshot the $60,000-80,000 estimate, finally touching down for a hefty $175,000.

The impact of the catalogue raisonné on Whiteley’s work continues to give reassurance to buyers and bolster prices. Cockatoo becomes the third highest price achieved for a Whiteley work on paper at auction.

Given the 153 lots in this sale, there were opportunities to sell and acquire multiple artworks by some of Australia’s most sought-after artists. After several years of a slump in prices, John Coburn is on the rebound with his colourful abstract compositions. Five examples of Coburn’s typical pictures were on offer, and all 5 works sold. Exotic Plants (Lot 4 ) was the first of these to be well received, selling at $44,000, well ahead of its $20,000-30,000 hopes. Western Desert Dreaming, 1987 (Lot 77), a painting requiring plenty of wall space at 181.5 x 303.5 cm, sold comfortably on its high estimate of $90,000.

There were 9 works by Charles Blackman offered in last night’s sale, including lots 6, 7 and 32 from the Millie Phillips collection. 7 of the 9 sold, the best of which was an ethereal oil on glass work, Fragrance, 1958 (Lot 60), selling for $34,000 (est. $20,000-30,000).

Millie Phillips bought Arthur Boyd’s Hillside with Rocks, Shoalhaven (Lot 11) in a Menzies auction in July 2014 for $75,000, having previously been sold at Menzies sister company Lawsons in March 1991 for $15,000. The current estimate of $100,000-150,000 seemed in line with its last offering in 2014, and it crept above its low expectations selling for $110,000.

Similarly, for a painting from Nolan’s lauded African series, Phillips had bought Elephant, 1963 (Lot 12) at Sotheby’s in October 2012 for $70,000 (est. $70,000-90,000), offered with the exact same estimates, it achieved $110,000.

Modernist painter Margaret Preston and the more modern master Margaret Olley often do battle in the auction room, and lots 13 and 14 allowed the viewer and bidder to see first-hand two extraordinary still life painters go head-to-head. Olley’s Cornflowers with Pomegranates, 1991 (Lot 13 , the larger work sold exactly on its low estimates of $60,000-80,000. Meanwhile, Preston’s Native Flowers and Geebungs, 1938 (Lot 14) carried higher estimates of $100,000-150,000, and also sold on its low hopes of $100,000.

Two attractive and typical paintings by Jeffrey Smart captured bidders’ imagination. Study 1 for Bus Terminus, 1972-73 (Lot 15) from the Millie Phillips collection was a lesson in perspective, and saw considerable interest, neatly selling for $180,000 (est. $150,000-200,000). This was quite an improvement on its purchase price from the Denis Savill collection sale in 2016 where it was bought for $110,000 hammer price.

The second Jeffrey Smart work,  Ticket Boxes, Catania, 1964 (Lot 71), acquired at a Menzies sale in 2006 did even better: purchased for $140,000 hammer, it sold for $250,000 last night (est. $250,000-350,000).

The cover lot, Sidney Nolan’s ‘Kelly and Rifle’, 1980, sold for $400,000.

Although a late Kelly painting, Sidney Nolan’s Kelly and Rifle, 1980 (Lot 16), offered us a Lord McAlpine provenance, a strong visual presence and a bright colour palette, elevating it to cover lot status. In 1994, it had traded with Christies for just $15,000. Five years ago at a Sotheby’s Australia sale, it was purchased for $340,000 ($414,800 including buyer’s premium), and last night it sold for $400,000 (est. $400,000-500,000), which would have resulted overall in a slight loss.

Lloyd Rees’ Sydney – the Source, 1973 (Lot 17) was already a special painting, as it had achieved the highest price at auction, setting a record when Sotheby’s sold it in May 2013 for $450,000 having previously sold in 2010 for $420,000. Prices for Rees have remained somewhat sluggish at auction with the artist somewhat out of favour. Although estimated at $500,000-600,000, Rees is yet to achieve a hammer price of $500,000. Nonetheless, Sydney – the Source sneaked above its previous price by $10,000 to sell for $460,000, retaining the auction record for a Lloyd Rees painting.

An artist who never goes out of fashion is Fred Williams. Whilst his paintings from the 1960s remain the most revered, most sought after and generally most expensive in the auction room, it can make his more brightly coloured works of the 1970s seem like relative bargains.

That said, his 1950s much darker pictures tend to sell for comparatively even more modest sums. So it was interesting to see Fred Williams’ represented in the Menzies sale with three pictures: one from 1958, one from 1968 and yet another from 1978.

Werribee Gorge 10, 1977-78 (Lot 18) is one of Williams’ typically thought-out paintings with a warm colour palette. Bidders responded favourably to the estimates of $350,000-450,000, with the work selling mid-range for $395,000.

Meanwhile, an early gouache on paper from 1958 (Lot 61) with its dark palette did well too selling also mid-range for $46,000 (est. $40,000-50,000). Perhaps proving the point about Williams’ 1960s pictures, Wilsons Promontory, 1968 (Lot 62), also a gouache, sold above its high estimate for $75,000 (est. $50,000-70,000).

A total of 22 artworks by Sidney Nolan were on offer on the night. Another of the much sought-after works was Head (from the Gallipoli Series), 1958 (Lot 20), estimated at $50,000-70,000. Several bidders competed taking it to $95,000.

An historically important and very early Nolan Ned Kelly painting formerly in the collection of art patrons John and Sunday Reed was offered with hopes of $350,000-450,000. Interestingly titled Mrs Skillion Putting her Fingers to her Nose, c.1947 (Lot 67), this exceptionally rare picture sold with one bid for $350,000 to a buyer on the phone with Menzies chairman Cameron Menzies.

A collection of 17 Nolan works on paper with modest values and all with Marlborough Gallery London provenance, sold for a combined $111,800 hammer price, demonstrating not only Nolan’s prodigious output, but also the large price range from $5,000 to $5 million in the auction room for original works by Australia’s perhaps best-known artist.

The large and imposing example of Yosl Bergner’s work The Last Supper, 1982 (Lot 49) was always likely to perform better than its $15,000-25,000 estimates given also the artist’s strong international presence. The highest price at auction for Bergner’s work is US$130,000 set at a Sotheby’s New York sale in 2018, and the record price at an Australian sale sits at $52,500 from a 2003 sale at Menzies. The Last Supper generated considerable international interest and solidly surpassed the Australian high watermark to sell for a new record of $65,000.

Who could resist two superlative examples of modernist painter Alison Rehfisch’s work? Well, not many given the frenetic bidding on both pictures on offer. Cagnes Revisited, c1958 (Lot 54) achieved $46,000 (est. $15,000-20,000) whilst her much smaller still life Lemon and Grey (Lot 55) from 1933 sold for even more for $55,000 (est. $20,000-30,000).

Two paintings by an Aboriginal and an Impressionist master did very well: Emily Kngwarreye’s brightly pink and purple coloured Desert Wildness II, 1996 (Lot 65), offered at $50,000-70,000 sold for $84,000. The blue and whites did it for Tom Roberts’ The Cloud, 1925 (Lot 66), selling for $120,000 on hopes of $100,000-150,000.

Disappointingly, two paintings by Justin O’Brien and one by Garry Shead, all with religious imagery, failed to ignite any fervour, even though all seemed most attractive examples of each artist’s work. O’Brien’s Madonna with Two Donors, 1990 (Lot 68) with estimates of $200,000-300,000 and The Assumption of the Virgin, c 1952 (Lot 69), estimated at $100,000-150,000, as well as Garry Shead’s Mount Pleasantania, 2010 (Lot 70), estimated at $140,000-180,000 failed to find buyers on the night.

More joy however for sellers of fine sculpture: legendary American artist Robert Indiana’s Hope, 2009 (Lot 72), sold well on its $220,000-280,000 hopes for $250,000. Similarly for Clement Meadmore, the Australian who made the US his home: his Always, 1991 (Lot 73), sold at the high expectations for $100,000, while a most typical small sculpture with significant US provenance by British artist Lynn Chadwick (Lot 74) sold on its low estimates for $180,000.

Another Joy was the large Lin Onus measuring 181 x 183 cm titled The Joy of Fish – In Waiting, 1994 (Lot 81) depicting a nude floating in water looking disconcertingly straight at the viewer. It was estimated at $350,000-450,000, selling at the low estimate.

Is the steam running out of the market for Jordy Kerwick pictures at auction, or is it just about the subject matter? Perhaps buyers are simply becoming more discerning. The highest price was only set in March 2022 by Sotheby’s in New York for Le Tigre, 2020, selling for US$220,000. Whilst most of these highest prices have been for Kerwick’s very large “scary animal” paintings, his still life paintings appear to be a bit more hit and miss when offered at auction and clearly don’t elicit the same kind of passion for his work.

Two still life paintings by Kerwick failed to sell at a Leonard Joel sale in October 2022, and another failed to sell at Smith & Singer on 16th November. Sotheby’s New York failed to sell two of Kerwick’s works in their 17th November auction, and the same fate befell the two still life paintings at Menzies last night, estimated at $80,000-100,000 (Lot 82) and at $40,000-60,000 (Lot 83).

Two extremely fresh to market works by Ben Quilty, perhaps with the paint barely dry were offered. Both were created only last year in 2021 and exhibited in gallery shows: Self-Portrait with a Hat, (Lot 85) in Hong Kong’s Woaw Gallery and The Encouragement Award No. 2 (Lot 86) at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne. The much better self-portrait well surpassed expectations of $30,000-40,000 to sell for $80,000, whilst the more challenging lot 86 came with hopes of $60,000-80,000 and sold just below the low estimate for $55,000.

After a marathon effort auctioneering and the sale drawing to a close, suddenly and unexpectedly tulip fever flared up, when Tulip Fields (Lot 144) by Dutch artist Hart Ferdinand Nibbrig woke up the remaining bidders. Auctioneer Martin Farrah educated his audience “This is what you call a sleeper” when the painting on estimates of $20,000-30,000 soared to $70,000 fuelled by overseas interest, as Nibbrig’s paintings have sold for as much as US$100,000 internationally.

All prices shown are hammer prices unless otherwise noted.

Article exclusively for Australian Art Sales Digest.