2 December 2003

Collectables: Wolfgang Sievers


The art market has finally realised it can no longer ignore 90-year-old photographer
Wolfgang Sievers, writes Michael Hutak

Collectors have been hearing for years that photography is "hot", and a stroll through any major international art fair will confirm that it has become the medium of choice, especially for younger contemporary artists.

Australia's art scene is overrun with snap-happy shutterbugs, with some, such as Tracey Moffatt, Rosemary Laing and Patricia Piccinini, making an impact in art world centres of gravitas such as New York, Venice and Cologne.

But do the sums match the hype? Is photography really a serious alternative for collectors looking to diversify away from, for example, the lucrative but monotonous trade in late-20th-century modernist painting?

"It is still possible to buy a good collection of photography for the price of a good painting," says Daniel Palmer, a critic and lecturer in the history of photography at the University of Melbourne. "But the real plus to emerge from the interest in artists such as Moffatt and Piccinini is that it has helped to establish traditional photography as a genuine collectable."

By "traditional", Palmer means "old-school" photographers such as Olive Cotton, Max Dupain, Lewis Morley or, as a case in point, the vastly under-appreciated 90-year-old Wolfgang Sievers, AO.

Born in Germany in 1913, Sievers studied at the Bauhaus and is revered as one of the most significant architectural -photographers to work in Australia, with many works in state archives, libraries and galleries. However, he has been ignored by the art market. Australian Art Sales Digest records show that in the decade to 2003, barely 10 works surfaced at auction, all selling for sums less than $1000. Or not selling at all.

Then, at Lawson-Menzies' Sydney auction in July, a 1959 silver gelatine photograph of a sulphuric acid plant in Hobart brought $2350 against an estimate of $900. The word was out by the time Sievers walked on crutches into Melbourne's Centre of Contemporary Photography to donate a 1986 print of a 1967 photograph for last week's charity auction to benefit the centre.

The auction, conducted by Christie's, was a runaway success, with 59 works by the cream of Australian photography garnering $79,360 for the CCP. Admittedly a paltry sum compared with the fine-art market but still vital signs of life for the 100 or so -collectors bidding at the sale.

And it wasn't a Moffatt or Piccinini that topped the sale but the Sievers, which fetched $8800 - an almost four-fold hike on the Lawson-Menzies sale.

-MICHAEL HUTAK

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First published in The Bulletin,
2 December 2003, Volume 121; Number 48

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