Sunshine and Sun Shine Brightly at Smith and Singer Important Australian Art Auction

In their autumn art auction in Sydney, Smith and Singer set new auction records for two contemporary Australian artists. Most notably, Bronwyn Oliver’s Sun (lot 8) sold for $700,000, doubling the previous artist’s record. Three sales above one million dollars were achieved: perhaps not surprisingly for works by Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams and Arthur Streeton. All of these artists are not in just one, but two top ten lists: of highest prices achieved at auction and in the top ten traded artists at auction.

Speaking of records: the thick impasto paintings of Nicholas Harding are not easily parted with – until at least this auction. The artist has less than 100 recorded offerings at auction, and the highest price was set just in November 2023 with $60,000 for “Eddy Avenue”.

This has now been surpassed with the sale of two monumental paintings by the late artist, setting new auction records. River Figures (Two Hats), 2009 (lot 3) was estimated at $40,000-$60,000, and Pandanus Palm, 2011 (lot 4) carried hopes of $45,000-$65,000.

The lower estimated River Figures took the Palme d’Or with a hammer price of $140,000 over the higher estimated Pandanus Palm, which sold at $105,000.

Harding’s specific beach paintings have always achieved a premium, however to us and obviously to the auction house too, Pandanus Palm looked to be the better picture.

If you were not lucky enough to secure one of the large canvasses, you had the opportunity to scoop up one of the two diminutive examples from 2003: Pink Frangipani (3) (lot 73) and Pink Frangipani (1), both estimated at $8,000-$12,000 which sold for $15,000 and $16,000 respectively.

In the Australian Financial Review a couple of weeks ago, Elizabeth Fortescue provided an illuminating look at Cressida Campbell’s two years living in Burley Griffin House in Avalon, and last night was a chance to acquire her luminous woodblock print of the interior with bush views from 1999 (lot 7).

The artist continues to be one of the most highly sought artists by collectors. Estimated at the now commonplace estimates of $140,000-$180,000, it didn’t disappoint, selling for $170,000, landing no doubt a significant premium on the price paid in its 1999 purchase from Rex Irwin Gallery.

Considering the rarity of Bronwyn Oliver’s organic and beautiful metal sculptures to market, it is surprising to see three appearing in the secondary market by three of the leading auctioneers.

Menzies sold Acorn, 2005, from the estate of Rod Menzies for an impressive $190,000, more than doubling the high estimate of $80,000.

Deutscher + Hackett offer Link II, 1993, in their 24th April auction in Melbourne with estimates of $80,000-$120,000.

At Smith and Singer last night, one of her most appealing works, the spherical copper Sun from 2004 (lot 8) shone blindingly bright, after its original purchase from Christine Abrahams Gallery 20 years ago by a Sydney collector.

Sun was offered at double the estimates of the most comparable recent sale of Unity, 2001, which sold by Deutscher + Hackett in 2019 for $330,000, and also obliterated the result of $360,000 for Shell, 2003, at Menzies in 2019.

With a hammer price of $700,000, a new benchmark has been set for Bronwyn Oliver by a very long way, as Sun eclipsed all previous auction records.

Subsequently, the soothing mood of a Margaret Olley still life Mandarins on Red Table (lot 13) achieved a small premium above the high estimates, selling for $90,000 on estimates of $65,000-$85,000. It last sold at auction in 2001 for $50,000.

With the re-emergence of strong early artworks by John Perceval on the market, it gives us again the opportunity to see this artist’s brilliance in the 1950s and 1960s.

The superbly provenanced, exhibited and wonderfully titled Spiky-Moses, Heath and Honey-Eaters, 1960 (lot 15), was offered with hopes of $80,000-$120,000. Bidding proved to be as frenetic, if not more so, than the painting, and it looked like it might go to a $200,000 hammer price, but stopped just short at $185,000.

Much rarer and just as special are John Perceval’s earthenware Angel sculptures. Medusa, 1961, (lot 16) with the signature snakes on her head this time did not turn all who looked at her to stone, quite the opposite, as bidders admired and indeed battled over her. The estimates of $25,000-$35,000 were vanquished by the hammer price of $55,000.

However, this discerning audience for Perceval decided against purchasing the much later Old Ship and Life Raft, 1995 (lot 45) which passed in on expectations of $60,000-$80,000.

A 1930s London painting by William Dobell, The Chamber Maid (lot 17), much exhibited and much written about, failed to spark interest on its $400,000-$600,000 hopes.

The following lot, Arthur Boyd’s Mining Country, 1966 (lot 18), provides the perfect spot to mention Smith and Singer’s FIFO fine art auctioneer Martin Gallon. The former head of Sotheby’s Australia and long-time art auctioneer lives now permanently in the UK, however with fine art auctioneers clearly thin on the ground in the Antipodes, there is only one solution for Smith and Singer: fly Martin Gallon in for each sale. As chairman Geoffrey Smith commented about this arrangement “He’s the Best”.

And the result for Mining Country? Martin Gallon hammered it down for $300,000, bang on the low estimates with $300,000-$500,000 expectations.

What is an individual painting worth and am I paying too much? – such can be the concerns of the passionate art buyer.

Relax, not in the case of Brett Whiteley’s Doves on the Balcony, Lavender Bay, 1979 (lot 19), estimated at $800,000-$1,000,000. Helpfully, Geoffrey Smith’s catalogue essay provides us with the most recent comparable sale we are likely to see: Feeding Lavender Bay Doves, 1979, sold by Menzies in November 2023 for just under $800,000 including buyer’s premium. With its brilliant blues, Doves on the Balcony – arguably more attractive than Menzies’ predominantly yellow work – sold nicely on the low estimate for a hammer price of $800,000. No buyer’s remorse here then.

Despite its dominating presence at the Sydney viewing, Study for Portrait of Wendy, 1985 (lot 20), a very large charcoal on paper on board, generated less enthusiasm at $500,000-$700,000, failing to find a new home on the night.

A fresh to market Fred Williams landscape (lot 21) purchased in 1978 from legendary art dealer Rudy Komon just after it was painted, was always going to be offered with substantial estimates in the millions in light of recent very substantial prices achieved. The room met these $1.4 to $1.8 million selling hopes at the low end this time, with a sale at exactly $1.4 million.

Smith and Singer set the auction record price for a painting by Fred Williams, set in August 2023 for Masons Falls (1981) for almost $3.2 million.

Arthur Streeton Sunlight at the Camp
Arthur Streeton's "Sunlight at the Camp" sold for $1.5 million at Smith & Singers' autumn auction in April 2024

Taking up 12 pages of the catalogue, Sunlight at the Camp, 1894 (lot 22), is one of the most significant paintings by Arthur Streeton to appear on the market in recent times.

With Streeton at his most impressionistic, it is fascinating to view the photograph by G. Rodney Cherry of Streeton at Little Sirius Cove, ca 1892-93, when the artist was at the age of about 27, looking somewhat the hippy in his crumpled hat and bare chest. Whilst it’s hard for us today to see the radical in the painting, it is much easier to observe in the photograph of the young man on the beach.

With five phones in action, Geoffrey Smith opened the bidding at a cool one million dollars and succeeded in securing the smallish 31 x 60.7 cm harbour scene at the top end of hopes at $1.5 million.

Aussies do love a good beach scene – think Charles Wheeler’s Australian Beach Pattern (Art Gallery of New South Wales), Ethel Carrick Fox’ Manly – Summer is Here (Manly Art Gallery and Museum) or Max Dupain’s Sunbaker (various private and public collections).

Clearly, the appeal of the quintessential Australian beach resonated with buyers also in Eugene von Guerard’s Mr Andrew Wittle’s Residence at Apollo Bay with Cape Patton in Distance, 1859 (lot 26), which offers a 19th century take on the theme.

A tiny picture yet a big step back in time, this von Guerard had passed through the hand of art dealer Denis Savill and Deutscher Fine Art and was last sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 for $72,000.

Phone bidders Emily Walker and Geoffrey Smith battled it out, only for Smith to secure it for his client mid-way the estimates at $250,000, a significant increase tripling the previous price

Finders aren’t necessarily keepers, as Louis Buvelot’s Summer Afternoon, Templestowe, 1867 (lot 27) proved. Offered just in November 2023 at auction in France with estimates of Euro 2,000 – Euro 3,000, it was strongly sought in Sydney. Estimated this time at $80,000-$100,000, the hammer price of $130,000 well exceeded these hopes, perhaps helped by the auction catalogue essay illustrated with the highly comparable larger painting from 1866, held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria since 1869.

The most sought-after painting of the evening was a spring scene by Charles Conder, Apple Blossoms, 1905 (lot 35). Acquired from David Jones Art Gallery in Sydney by the current Adelaide owner, and once owned by the renowned art collector William Bowmore, the modest estimates of $50,000-$70,000 sparked somewhat of a bidding frenzy from the six phone bidders. In the end, Geoffrey Smith’s buyer had the deepest pockets, bidding to $175,000.

This was highly comparable to a similar though less appealing painting which was sold under the Sotheby’s banner in May 2017 for $134,200, Mother Barney’s Cottage, also 1905.

A transitional painting by Lin Onus, Wirrirr Wirrirr (Rainbow Birds) (lot 41) in four panels was enthusiastically bid on the phone and in the room. On estimates of $200,000-$250,000, the clearly very committed room bidder seated just in front of us caught the birds at $270,000 hammer price. At its last outing in 2018, also under the Sotheby’s banner, the painting had sold for $140,000, just a bit over half of the current hammer price.

The night’s clearance rate was 70%, with 20 of the artworks sold at or below the low estimates and 14 sales on or above the high hopes.

Article originally published in Australian Art Sales Digest

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