Highlights from the Smith and Singer Auction – May 23

Smith & Singer’s first fine art sale of 2023 enticed buyers not with just one, but two hard copy auction catalogues. Totalling a higher than usual 100 lots, the first 13 lots were from the Selwyn and Renata Litton collection. From the provenance material supplied, the couple were regular auction house attendees and between 2001 and 2013 purchased many of the offerings in the public saleroom.

An exception to this was lot 2 of the sale, a Sidney Nolan Burke and Wills series painting, bought from the estate of Ted Lustig in 1978. Estimated at $80,000-$120,000, keen interest took it above the high hopes selling for $140,000.

If colour is important, then green is good for Fred Williams. His Green Landscape (You Yangs) (lot 6) galvanised bidders and sold for a cool half million dollars on estimates of $450,000-$650,000 – a satisfyingly profitable result for a painting purchased at a Menzies auction in 2008 for $360,000 incl. buyer’s premium. 

Would it be a similar story for Summer, 1964 (lot 7) by Ian Fairweather – an artist who is perhaps much less everybody’s cup of tea than the mighty Fred. Deutscher + Hackett sold the painting in November 2010 for $270,000 on estimates of $180,000-$240,000. With revised estimates of $250,000-$350,000 to match the previous price, it now sold 13 years later for the same $270,000.

We don’t know what the Littons paid for Arthur Boyd’s large, most typical and familiar On the Banks of the Shoalhaven, 1984 (lot 8), as it was purchased through Gould Galleries. However we do know that Christies sold the Shoalhaven scene in 2004 for $215,000 IBP.

With estimates now of $300,000-$400,000 the sellers could indeed expect some healthy financial gains. The painting turned out to be the most heavily contested lot of the evening, with a long bidding war leading to a round of applause when it finally sold for $680,000.

Whilst the Ken Whisson (lot 9) and the James Gleeson (lot 10) failed to find buyers, lot 12 offered us Howard Arkley’s very big (175 x 135 cm) head painting from 1990, and painted before the Archibald Portrait Prize made them de rigueur. Although perhaps a challenging image to live with given those bulging eyes, Psychedelic Head (lot 12) had all the accoutrements of an important work by head spray painter Arkley – including excellent provenance, long exhibition history and even longer literature references.

Would its $250,000-$350,000 hopes spark the necessary bidding? When bought by the Littons at Sotheby’s in 2004, it sold for a modest $96,000 hp. Since then, much water has passed under the bridge in Arkley’s world, and furious bidding resulted in a final hammer price of $400,000. 

Marking the start of the mixed vendor offering, Criss Canning’s Waratah and Studio Detail, 2003 (lot 14) was a stand-out painting deserving of the virtual first lot spot in catalogue two. Estimated at $25,000-35,000, it looked something of a bargain, and evidently many collectors fell in love with this still life wanting its gentle solace in their homes. However, it was a hard fight to win this prize, with the hammer only falling at $80,000. Which is also a new auction record for the artist, almost doubling her previous record of $42,000 for Gum Blossom, 1990, set in November 2021 at Deutscher + Hackett.

The Smith & Singer auction was also an opportunity to hunt down the perfect small sculpture for the desk, presenting several treats. The first was a Robert Klippel dated 1963 (lot 3) from the Litton collection, 33 x 41 x 31 cm, selling on the low estimate for $35,000.

Then we had Inge King’s modest and beautifully concentric bronze maquette from 1992 (lot 15) 28 x 16 x 15 cm which on $8,000-12,000 hopes sold for $17,000.

John Kelly’s signature black and white figurative Three Cows in a Pile, 2001 (lot 18) 22.9 x 22.9 x 8.9 cm led to somewhat of a bidder stampede, selling above expectations for $38,000 (est. $25,000-35,000).

Straight after Clement Meadmore’s sublime abstract Warm Valley, 1994 (lot 19), 19.5 x 42 x 22 cm, sold for $48,000 on hopes of $40,000-60,000. It had previously sold in May 2022 at Swann Galleries New York for US$16,000 IBP (AU$24,000), miraculously doubling its price after its emigration from the US.

Still looking for a status symbol for your desk? Well, the ultimate has to be the British giant of modernist sculpture Henry Moore. Reclining Figure: Pea Pod, 1982 (lot 77), 15 x 22 x 12 cm, would undoubtedly fit an uber art collector’s designer desk like a pea in a pod. With Rex Irwin Gallery provenance, it outstripped its $20,000-$30,000 estimates and sold for $70,000.

Bust of a Girl, 1973 (lot 78) did even better: carrying $25,000-35,000 estimates, it sold for the six figure sum of $100,000.

The six figure hopes of $150,000-200,000 for Stringed Mother and Child, 1938, cast in 1985, 12.5 cm high (lot 79) proved too ambitious and left this bronze from an edition of 9 without a new home.

There was nothing shy in the rapid-fire bidding which ensued for the pursuit of The Shy Girl, 1959 (lot 23), from a series of very popular girl with flowers paintings by Charles Blackman from the 1950s. Directly acquired from the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane all the way back in 1961, it was offered with estimates of $200,000-$300,000. The winning bid was a very confident $330,000.

Three paintings of the Shoalhaven, one of Arthur Boyd’s most sought-after subject matter, all found buyers last night: in addition to lot 8 from the Litton collection, lot 28 sold for $140,000 (est. $120,000-160,000) and Fishing at Dusk on the Shoalhaven (lot 36), sold at the low end of its $180,000-240,000 estimates.

After the recent passing of John Olsen, unsurprisingly, there has been a focus on major paintings that happened to have been consigned to auction prior to his death. Last night’s major offering was his Life on the Edge of the Pond, 2003 (lot 29) was purchased from Metro5 Gallery almost exactly 20 years ago and sold now for $250,000 (est. $250,000-$350,000).

Brett Whiteley’s oeuvre experienced a mixed night: The River, 1976 (lot 30) is an Aubusson Tapestry originally intended as an edition of 6, but only 3 produced, making this one particularly rare, and selling on the high estimate of $250,000.

Another Whiteley with a winding river but titled The Paddock – Early Morning, 1979 (lot 35) did not sell on expectations of $2 million to $3 million.

However Requite, 1967 (lot 43) which could only be described as a very challenging work by the artist, met with success, selling for $200,000 at the lower end of its estimates of $200,000-$300,000.

Meanwhile, his Malcolm McLaren, 1989 (lot 98), an appealing work on paper, did not meet its low estimates of $15,000, whilst The Cat (lot 100) an offset lithograph from an edition of 100 plus artist’s proofs sold for a somewhat amazing $50,000, on estimates of $15,000-25,000.

This particular Whiteley print does have form however, as Deutscher + Hackett sold another example in December 2022 for $56,000, and Menzies in December 2021 for $55,000 – and presumably still does have more underbidders.

Whilst The Cat is undoubtedly Whiteley’s most popular and valuable print, it does not in my view demonstrate the effort and skill that distinguish his hand produced etchings for example.

Not just one, but four etchings were on offer by Lucian Freud, one of Britain’s greatest 20th century figurative artists.  Freud produced a large body of these sometimes jarring studies of friends and family. Last night’s stand-out was Head of Ib (lot 72), estimated at $8,000-12,000 and deservedly selling for a much better $17,000.

There was considerable fanfare on the offering of Charles Frederick Goldie’s Reverie: Ena te Papatahi, a Ngapuhi Chieftainess, 1916 (lot 32), a significant and important painting bought by retired art dealer Denis Savill in 2015 at Christies in London. Originally estimated at $1.1 million to $1.5 million, prior to auctioneering, this was raised in a sale room notice to $1.4 million to $1.6 million. However, it failed to sell on this occasion.

Ralph Balson’s rare paintings are ever popular with collectors when they turn up, and Constructive Painting, 1954 (lot 33) didn’t disappoint either. Marketed with estimates at $250,000-$350,000, bidding was very constructive and settled above the high end for $360,000.

Charles Blackman’s The White Tablecloth, 1956 (lot 34) was purchased at Sotheby’s in August 2010 for $540,000 hp by ‘a distinguished Sydney collector’. The owners have distinguished themselves further with its sale by more than doubling this figure and a final hammer price of $1.2 million, on expectations of $1.2 million to $1.6 million.

The owner of Emily Kngwarreye’s Merne Alhalkere, 1993 (lot 38) clearly has an eye for a great painting and also has an astute adviser. Bought at a Menzies auction in February 2017 for $25,000, it sold last night just six years later for $80,000.

Albert Namatjira’s prices continue to rise, and two neat examples attracted considerable attention. Blackwood Trees at Rapid Creek, Darwin (1950) (lot 47) is a rare thing indeed. It was reviewed in the Australian Women’s Weekly in September 1950 and spoke of Albert’s first painting of a seascape. Estimated at $50,000-70,000, it sold for $100,000.

Glen Helen Landscape, 1954 (lot 48), made $60,000 on estimates of $30,000-40,000.

The auction achieved sales of 66% by lot.

Report prepared exclusively  for  Australian Art Sales Digest.

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