11 January 2003

Collectables: Jeffrey Smart


Jeffrey Smart has virtually no market outside Australia, yet short supply keeps his work in demand

With his latest show at Sydney’s Australian Galleries another sellout, evergreen artist, Jeffrey Smart, appears at 82 years of age to be at the height of his powers and success. Netting almost $5 million in sales, the show comes hot on the heels of another record auction price: $439,450 for the 1990 work Near Pisa Airport, paid in late August at Christie’s sale of the BHP Billiton Collection.

Smart’s signature style – the industrial settings and motifs, the clean lines, bold colours and precise attention to composition – settled in when he left Australia in the late 1960s for the rural idyll of a Tuscan villa. From his studio there, for almost four decades, Smart has meticulously produced 20 to 30 major works per annum, feeding shows for his Australian dealers who can barely get their hands on works before they are sold.

Not too many investments outstrip Sydney real estate but Smart’s average price at auction has more than trebled since 1997.

Melbourne football identity, Sam Newman, kicked things along in 1998, blaming too much red wine when he paid a then-record $288,500 for Guiding Spheres (Homage to Cezanne) II at Christies Melbourne. The tabloids scoffed at the folly, but Newman, it appears, knew exactly what he was doing (or was acting on sound advice). The major touring retrospective of Smart mounted in 1999 by the Art Gallery of NSW sparked another jump in values and a minor rush on Smarts - 27 oils were offered at auction that year with only four unsold.

While they are a genuine blue chip investment, we are unlikely to see an glut of works by Smart filling auction catalogues any time soon.

Unlike, for example, Brett Whiteley (around 15,000 works) or Arthur Boyd (some 20,000), Smart’s lifetime output numbers only about 1000 major paintings. Exacting a rigid quality control, he has often destroyed works which, in his opinion, haven’t made the grade. Rarely does an inferior work reach the market. In the past ten years only 145 paintings have been sold on the secondary market through the auction room.

No more than 100 major works are in state or public galleries, the rest are held tightly by private collectors who typically would have bought them straight out of a show with his dealers.

The short supply has meant Smart has virtually no market outside Australia, yet he does have international standing. Global art auction data firm, artprice.com, rates Smart No.407 among the top 9,000 artists at auction, just below Mexican Frida Kahlo (402) but above the more-renowned contemporary Joseph Beuys (447) and venerable English master John Constable (436).

Today Smart enjoys his fame without paying the price. “I don’t really want to be well-known here in Italy, I’d like to lead my quiet life here,” he told The Bulletin when we visited recently. “It’s very thrilling to go back to Australia and find out you are Mr Famous.”

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First published in The Bulletin