20 April 2001

Freudian slip

In between dealing with a hostile press, public brawls with former and current staff, controversial appearances before Senate estimates committees, and complaints about the air-conditioning, National Gallery of Australia director, Brian Kennedy, has found time to pursue a painting – one with an asking price of $8 million, no less. News broke last Wednesday in The Australian that Kennedy would acquire British artist Lucien Freud’s 1999 painting After Cezanne for a sum that would make it most expensive painting ever purchased by an Australian public gallery.
However on Friday Kennedy told The Bulletin that he was “taken by surprise when the story appeared,” and that the Gallery’s negotiations with the artist, who still owns the work, were continuing. As we go to press, Kennedy still has a $1m shortfall to make up from private benefactors in order to clinch the deal.
Suspicions that Kennedy himself leaked the story seem unlikely, given that it is highly unusual to seek publicity for a work you hope to purchase. There are fears now that Freud may now even raise his asking price, now that he is aware that the work is so keenly sought down under. And for the sale to fall through now would surely be a highly embarrassing nail in Kennedy’s professional coffin.
Informed reaction to the acquisition has, in general, been positive But not everyone is happy. One former director of a major Australian state gallery told The Bulletin that the NGA’s “whole collection policy needs to be reviewed and sharpened. Why in 2001 are we buying up the work of British artists? Why aren’t we looking to the Pacific or Asia or here in Australia for that matter?” And one leading benefactor to the NGA declared if he “had the choice of spending $8m on a British artist or a similar sum on Australian work I know what I’d be choosing.”
However William Wright, curatorial director of Sydney’s leading commercial gallery, Sherman Galleries, dismissed such criticism as shallow. “In New York they wouldn’t blink at such a purchase. It’s a worthwhile purchase.
“It’s a large composition, an excellent transcription of a remarkable earlier work (Paul Cezanne’s L’Apres-midi a Naples) that the NGA already owns. Freud is the best living artist of his kind by a long chalk and we have too few of them here.”
Should it make the voyage, After Cezanne will bring the tally to four Freuds in Australian collections, three of them in public galleries.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia purchased Freud’s Naked Man with Rat (1977) in 1983 for just $78,000. Today it is valued at $6.5 million, marking the $8m for After Cezanne as a fair market price.
The AGWA’s deputy director, Gary Dufour, says his Freud’s worth to his Gallery since it’s purchase has been more than simply fiscal.
“For smaller public galleries like ours, if you don’t have works in your collection that others want to borrow, it affects your ability to borrow works in turn,” said Dufour. “Our Freud has spent half it’s time with us out on loan to galleries all over the world – in Paris, Washington, London, Berlin, Frankfurt - if we hadn’t been loaning out the Freud for the past decade most of these major international galleries would not even know we existed.”
Asked which Freud was the superior work, Dufour said he wouldn’t comment only to say “I’m pleased that we have the one that we have.”
In the mid 1980’s the Art Gallery of New South Wales had the chance to buy an important Freud but decided the asking price of $360,000 too high. Three months later the work was eventually sold for $1.2 million.

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First published in The Bulletin

17 April 2001

Saleroom’s Lot

An auction market in contemporary Australian art appears assured after the French-owned international auction house, Christie’s, conducted its second successful sale in the emerging category in Melbourne last week.
Bidding was brisk and competitive with a respectable 70% clearance rate on the 131 lots, which ranged in estimate from $1000 to $180,000.
Top selling lot at $99,875 was the late Rosalie Gascoigne’s ‘Lantern’1990. Other winners on the night were collectors of Brisbane conceptual artist, Robert Macpherson, whose ‘Scale from the Tool’ 1977 set a new saleroom record for the artist of $70,500, confirming his rank among Australia’s senior living artists.
Other artists to post strong sales include Ken Whisson ($49,350), Imants Tillers ($44,650) Robert Hunter ($32,900) and Dale Hickey ($32,900)
With few dealers or museum curators active, Christie’s Head of Contemporary Art, Annette Larkin, said buyers at the sale were predominantly younger, private collectors. “We also had a several successful bids from ex-pats in South East Asia - young lawyers and bankers earning US dollars in Hong Kong and Singapore who were eager take advantage of the exchange rate.”
The sale aggregate of $918,000 was, according to Larkin, “excellent, considering several big ticket items didn’t sell”. She said the total compared favorably with the $1.2 million achieved at Christie’s inaugural contemporary sale, held in Sydney last August.
The poor performing items were works by Howard Arkley, whose prices had skyrocketed since his untimely death in 1999. The formerly buoyant market for the artist’s airbrushed, day-glo images of suburbia took a stumble when four of five lots failed to meet reserve.
Arkley’s ‘Eastern Suburbs Pink Home’ - the sale’s ‘hero’ lot - was passed in at $130,000 against a low reserve of $150,000, however prominent Melbourne gallerist, Anna Schwartz, believes the correction was long overdue. “Howard would be turning in his grave if he knew his works were being passed in at that figure, but we can see the market for his work is in the process of correcting itself.”
Some dealers have been critical of Christie’s foray into their territory but Schwartz was supportive, saying the sale was “the best advertisement commercial galleries could get. Not enough of the art-buying public are knowledgeable about contemporary art – auctions like this educate them.“

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First published in The Bulletin