25 September 2003

Collectables: Bonhams' Oz joint venture

A new joint venture aimed at grabbing a slice of the booming fine art auction market may struggle to get into the frame.

Breathless excitement greeted the news that UK firm Bonhams, founded 1793 and the world’s third largest auction house, will dive into the local market via a joint venture with Double Bay auctioneer Tim Goodman. “Our brief is to compete with the multinationals in this market,” said Goodman, targetting the world’s number 1 and 2 gavel bangers: NYSE-listed Sotheby’s and French-owned Christie’s.

Bonhams & Goodman have already opened new offices in Perth and Brisbane and Goodman has recruited no less than five former specialists from “Christoby’s” to kick start the venture.

Both Goodman and Richard Brooks, Bonhams’ UK chairman, cut their teeth in the collectible motor car trade. Goodman’s is already the local market leader in this area and also has a strong profile in jewelry and sports memorabilia. In the UK Bonhams’s strong suit is decorative rather than fine art.

Local skeptics doubt whether this latest foray by an international firm in the super-competitive, and now crowded Australian fine art market, can do much more than nudge the dominance of the “big three”: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and the Australian-owned Deutscher~Menzies, which entered the market in 1998.

In the late 1990’s French-owned firm Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg embarked on a similar quest down-under but failed.

Goodman argues that “the oldest firms are losing market share” in Australia, which is true but they have been losing it most spectacularly to D~M, owned by Melbourne cleaning tycoon Rod Menzies. And although the market itself has expanded to the spectacular tune of an average 10 per cent per year, the big three again have carved up the lion’s share.

According to Australian Art Sales Digest data, in 1992 almost $20 million in total sales of fine art was split roughly three ways between Sotheby’s ($6.9 million), Christies ($5.6m), and all “others” ($6.7m). A decade later, in a market now worth almost $80 million, and Sotheby’s ($23.5m) had increased sales four-fold, Christie’s ($18.2m) had more than trebled, D~M ($25m) had exploded in just five years, while “other” ($13.2m) had only doubled.

Goodman's still remains in the “other” category and while its annual "National Art Sale" has grown in 13 years to a respectable $1.75m in sales last July, the Bonhams joint venture will face stiff competition, not least on their home turf in Sydney from Menzies’s other firm, the new look, gung-ho Lawson~Menzies.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin

4 September 2003

Collectables: Rupert Bunny

Change in Tempo: Security and cleaning magnate John Schaeffer has gotten out of Australian art, but not quite while the going was good.

Schaeffer's sell-off last week of almost all his beloved Rupert Bunny’s, plus a couple of other out-of-fashion colonial-era artists was “a limited success,” says Sotheby’s Sydney painting’s expert, Geoff Cassidy. The sale draws a line under the greed-was-good 1980s boom in colonial and traditional art.

The fourteen lots fetched just AUD$1,016,700 - well below the low estimate for the sale of $1.5 million. Schaeffer and Sotheby’s were happy to offload most lots at below the auction house’s low estimate but the sale’s “hero” lot – Bunny’s 1985 Portrait of Jeanne Morel - failed to reach reserve and was passed in at $490,000. Schaeffer paid $500,000 for the work at the landmark Sir Leon and Lady Trout sale in 1989.

“The Trout sale was really the last big one-owner auction of the 1980s before the bust in the early 1990s,” says Cassidy. “Even though the market has well and truly recovered since then you’d have a lot of trouble getting the prices paid for most of those popular artists of the 1980s. The market is definitely moving towards the contemporaries at the moment, and it’s been difficult to sell top-end Bunnys for some time... We were quite happy to move them.”

Cassidy said that when Bunny was at the height of his popularity “John (Schaeffer) was driving the market quite hard and when you take such a major player out of the market it gets quite hard.”

Son of Melbourne Judge, Bunny (1865-1947) spent almost 50 years living and painting in Paris and even managed to get hung several times in the Salon of the late 1880s alongside the masters of impressionist painting. Bunny was a hot ticket in 1980s but in the last 10 years of the 327 works offered at auction 135 have failed to sell and of those more two thirds were offered – and rejected - in the last five years.

The sale was cannily marketed by Sotheby’s as merely a change in focus from Australian art to Schaeffer’s first love, 19th century English painting (he competes with Andrew Lloyd Webber as the world’s biggest private collector of Pre-Raphaelite Victorian art). This is no doubt the case for the super-wealthy, publicity-shy patron to the arts, but like any canny businessman the CEO of Tempo Services also had other reasons for the dispersal (don’t call it a fire sale!).

After a well-publicized split with his wife Julie last year, Schaeffer was forced to sell $7 million worth of his private-holding in Tempo’s stock. He told The Bulletin last November he would be selling off some of his magnificent collection to repurchase his holding.

"My love for this company is far greater than my love for my paintings," he said bluntly.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin