24 November 2004

Ricky Swallow: Wood for Thought


Australian sculptor Ricky Swallow, a mastercraftsman carving out a significant niche in the artworld, joins hallowed company with his appearance at the Venice Biennale, writes Michael Hutak.

TIME is running out for rising art star Ricky Swallow. The Venice Biennale is only eight months away and Australia's official representative is feeling the pinch. Two large blocks of jelutong, the Malay hardwood that this master sculptor favours, are still being chainsawed down to size by an assistant, not yet ready for Swallow's chisels and hammers to hone into an immaculate replica of the human skeleton that sits at their side, waiting patiently. Across the studio another curio, a bicycle courier's crash helmet overrun with snakes, is only just taking shape. The man himself is softly spoken, slight, and slightly harried.

"I believe you should only do one thing at a time," he tells The Bulletin on this grey London afternoon in his East End studio. "But right now my head is in three pieces instead of one. This one [the helmet and snakes] should have been finished by now. That one [the skeleton] needs to get started, and the other involves taxidermy and I still have to see a taxidermist next week." The time pressure and logistical demands of the Biennale are intense. "We can't afford to let things lapse into overtime - it's not like you can get an extension - and when things are sitting around half done, it can make me quite anxious."

12 October 2004

Aboriginal art in Paris: In your dreaming


A select slice of Paris’s art collecting elite gathered at elegant rooms on Avenue Matignon earlier this month for auction house Christie’s first-ever exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. Thirty or so works on preview had been selected especially to tempt European tastes, pulled from 168 lots to be auctioned in Sydney on October 12. Last week another tranche of dots-and-dreaming lots from the sale went on view at Christie’s New York.
The sale itself represents a shake-up in the entire sector. With only sporadic competition, the Aboriginal art auction market has been virtually the personal fiefdom of Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist Tim Klingender for almost a decade. But this year five different companies are conducting sales of Aboriginal art, with the French-owned Christie’s expected to snare the biggest slice of market share from its arch international rival.

5 October 2004

Art de triomphe: Aboriginal art is booming in France

PARIS, France – A select slice of Paris' collecting elite gathered at elegant rooms on Avenue Matignon last month for auction house Christie's first exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. Thirty or so works on preview had been selected to tempt European tastes, pulled from 168 lots to be auctioned in Sydney on October 12. Last week another tranche of dots-and-dreaming lots from the sale went on view at Christie's New York. The Aboriginal art auction market has been virtually the personal fiefdom of Sotheby's Aboriginal art specialist Tim Klingender for almost a decade, but this year five different companies are conducting sales, with the French-owned Christie's expected to snare the biggest slice of market share from its arch rival.
Aboriginal art has been booming at home for more than five years, yet internationally the market remains underdeveloped. While European collectors such as Thomas Vroom or Karl-Heinz Essl still account for roughly a third of all auction sales at the top of the market (above $150,000), less than a score of such players operate at this level. Shaun Dennison, who joined Christie's in March to head its new Aboriginal art department, is instead hunting growth opportunities at a lower level. "We're looking to widen the market," says Dennison, "starting with diverting sales of non-indigenous Australian paintings to Aboriginal art."
In a sale with a total value of between $2.5m and $3.5m, about 40% of the lots are estimated under $10,000, and just two above $150,000 - the top lot being Digging Stick Dreaming by Maggie Watson Napangardi.
Dennison's sale is high on quality and he has framed it as "modern Aboriginal art", which he defines as being from 1971 to the present day. "It's from the time Geoffrey Bardon commissioned the Papunya boards to the present day and it's restricted to works on board, paper and canvas. We aren't offering any barks or artefacts or watercolours pre-1970, none of the Hermannsburg artists like Albert Namatjira."
Christie's catalogue raises the bar in providing detailed provenance for every lot, something never seen in the sector before - from Sotheby's or anyone else. "It worries me when an artist is painting for 10 or 20 different sources," says Dennison. "So I've also tried to restrict myself to artists who have shown a commitment to selling through one or two agencies - such as Maggie Watson Napangardi and Gallery Gondwana, or Ginger Riley and Alcaston Gallery. That's where the top quality emerges."
So who attended the Paris preview to savour the swag of Emily Kngwarreyes, Rover Thomases and others? A mostly ageing crew of permanent waves and intellectual beards: twinsets and pearls for madame; basic black wrapped-round gourmand waistlines for monsieur. Canap‚s and champagne downed to an ambient didgeridoo soundtrack rounded out the picture. Nary a black person to be seen - Aboriginal or otherwise.
Attitudes towards Aboriginal art in Europe remain diffuse, undermined by carpetbaggers selling sub-par art by the metre on the internet and held back by poor marketing and antiquated notions that contemporary art by indigenous Australians is only of "anthropological" interest. "It's so very far away, your country, so it's good that these works are shown here," offered the impeccably tailored Eric Agote, a Parisian insurance executive. Agote owns works by Balgo Hills artists Ningie Nangala and Greeny Purvis Petyarre, artists whose works wear the bold graphic designs and direct use of line and colour so favoured among European collectors.
"Collectors here love the line, they love structure and clarity," says art dealer Stephane Jacob, a former curator at the Louvre who has been selling Aboriginal art in Paris for more than eight years. "What flies in Australia can flop in Europe, and vice versa. You find that artists who paint very direct, clean and colourful works - like Linda Syddick Napaljarri or Dave Pwerle Ross - sell very well here but not so well in Australia. But good luck trying to sell a Eubena [Nampitjin] here ..."
Dennison agreed, nominating a work by Balgo Hills artist Helicopter Tjungurrayi, pegged at the $4000 upper estimate, as "being very cheap for Europe".

First published in The Bulletin, Vol.22 No.40

2 October 2004

Deal Me In: Rex Irwin


Rex Irwin has been dealing in works by “important Australian and international artists” from his first floor rooms in Queen Street, Woollahra, since 1976. Irwin’s business is built around a stable of respected, mostly mid-career local artists, and a trade in works by some of the world’s most famous modernists, from Picasso, Hockney, Freud and Auerbach, to Australian icons like Fred Williams and John Brack.

Never lost for an opinion, Irwin is well placed to comment on the changes and trends that pervade Australia’s dynamic market for fine art. He spoke to Michael Hutak.
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MICHAEL HUTAK: Can you tell us a bit about how you started in the game?

REX IRWIN: I learnt my trade back in the 1970s from Frank McDonald, who was a partner with Terry Clune in the old Clune Galleries at the Yellow House [in Kings Cross, Sydney] - Olsen, Whiteley and the rest of them showed there, but Frank would also put on shows of work by (highly regarded 19th century landscape painter) von Guerard before anyone had really noticed him. Frank eventually started his own gallery and was an old-style art dealer who would do things like travel to Paris to find long lost (Rupert) Bunnys from the paint shop where Bunny used to buy his paints. He was essentially repatriating Australian art.

MH: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started you own business?

Art Market Notebook, Spring 2004

Fierce competition heats up Aboriginal sector

Sotheby’s is moving to meet the challenge of competitors snapping at its heels in the lucrative and ever-growing market for fine Aboriginal art

It had to happen. After nearly a decade of stellar growth, Sotheby’s failed for the first time to set a new Australian turnover record for an Aboriginal art auction, at its 2004 sale in Melbourne on July 26. But it is a mark of NYSE-listed firm’s success in this collecting category that a sale that aggregates AUD$6.6 million* and sets 18 new individual artist auction records can be considered something less than successful.

At least there is a culprit to blame: the “million dollar painting” of Uluru by Rover Thomas, which, in passing in for just $675k, knocked a hole in the catalogue and cruelled the post-sale headlines for Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender.

1 September 2004

Collectables: Carbine upstages auction heavyweights


Sales of racehorse art often ride on the animal rather than the artist, as the auction of a portrait of the great Carbine attests.

Carbine, the 1890 Melbourne Cup winner and the greatest racehorse to grace the ­Australian turf before Phar Lap, made a brief return to the spotlight last week – as Lot 62 at Sotheby’s Sydney sale of fine Australian art.

The handsome, if flattering, portrait of “Old Jack” was painted by Frederick ­William Woodhouse snr in 1891, the year Carbine retired from racing and began an influential stud career. The work stood out like a beacon in a catalogue clogged with the usual quality saleroom fare of Olsens, Boyds, Blackmans, Smarts and Co.

After a brief bidding war, the painting was knocked down for $34,000 against an upper saleroom estimate of $20,000 to horse breeder Grahame Mapp, owner of Hobartville Stud near Richmond, NSW, reputedly Australia’s oldest thoroughbred stud. With buyer’s premium and GST, the price tag was $41,095, the second-highest price for a Woodhouse, according to Australian Art Sales Digest, which also notes the Englishman arrived in Australia in 1857 and painted every winner of the Melbourne Cup from 1861 to 1890.

12 August 2004

Collectables: Rover Thomas


Doubting Thomas: After the high-profile failure of a 'million-dollar' Rover Thomas painting, Sotheby's are questioning the state galleries' commitment to Aboriginal art.

It looked a cinch on paper. An exceptional painting by Australia’s most famous indigenous artist, Rover Thomas, depicting the country’s most mythical physical feature, Uluru. The perfect work on which to hang publicity for the annual blockbuster sale of Important Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s in Melbourne late last month.

The NYSE-listed company went for broke, pegging the upper estimate at an astonishing AUD$1,000,000. Out went the press releases: “Million Dollar Painting on Display”. Dutifully, out went the newspaper previews, noting Aboriginal art’s “first million dollar painting” in headlines, body copy and captions.

Noone thought to mention that the figure was just an educated, but essentially hopeful, guess on the part of Sotheby’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender. Nobody asked why this painting was worth more than $200k above Thomas’s current auction record, [which is also that for any Aboriginal artist]. Notwithstanding the Aboriginal sector’s astounding growth in recent years, nobody bothered to ask who had a million dollars for an indigenous work, given the current benchmark had been set not by a private collector but by a state art gallery, and that the galleries haven’t splurged on a major indigenous work at auction since.

Back in 2001, when the National Gallery of Australia went to $786,625 to secure Thomas's "All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side", saleroom watchers gasped that the top end of the market could run so far ahead of the pack. Were market forces really speaking, or where they being amplified through the megaphone of Sotheby’s slick marketing?

These observers weren’t surprised to see "Uluru" passed in for $675k, failing even to meet it’s lower estimate of $700k. “It was a good painting, but not outstanding,” said one rival auction house expert. “The price it passed in at was a fair one.” While admitting his estimate had scared off potential buyers, Klingender bemoaned the fact that Australia’s collecting institutions weren’t coming to his party.

“It’s amazing the state galleries aren’t here picking the eyes out of our catalogue," Klingender told The Bulletin. "The National Museum of Australia bought three works…, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought one, but none of them are buying at the top end – everything above $100k all went to private collectors.”

Sotheby’s sustained foray into the Aboriginal art market since the mid 1990s has been met with disdain and suspicion by the country’s major collecting institutions. Klingender can’t fathom the snub. “The curators of these galleries don’t even come to the previews – it’s ridiculous and small-minded.”

Ironically, the Rover flop cruelled the headlines for what was otherwise another sensational sale from Sotheby’s: $6.5 million in total sales with bullish clearance rates of around 70 per cent both by lot and by value. Among the more than 60 new artist auction records set were such eminently collectable artists as Charlie Tararu Tjungurrayi (new benchmark $215,200); Dorothy Napangardi ($131,725) and Eubena Nampitjin ($52,200).

Collectors need not fear, the indigenous art market’s perpetual boom remains intact, though Sotheby’s position as market leader is under assault as rival houses, Lawson~Menzies, Christie’s, Bonham & Goodmans and Shapiro’s have all commenced moves to grab a slice of this dynamic art market sector.

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Abridged version published in The Bulletin

7 July 2004

2004 - Australian Culture Now, Fed Square


"Now" is the operative word in this new survey of Australian contemporary art, the most ambitious mounted in five years, say co-hosts NGV Australia and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). 2004 - Australian Culture Now represents the first major collaboration between the two principal tenants of Federation Square in Melbourne, the former one of Australia's oldest cultural institutions, the latter barely two years old and playing catch-up.

At its June 14 launch, NGV director Gerard Vaughan announced 2004 had been "deliberately timed for the Biennale [of Sydney]", which opened a week earlier, "to get international visitors to see both buildings fully operating". Hardly a noble aspiration but cultural tourists seeking a quality museum experience will still come away sated. Certainly, 2004 leaves a stronger aftertaste than the thematic conceits of the Sydney Biennale. On Reason and Emotion is left looking a little tired and emotional against the optimism of 2004's brash demand for "strayin' kulcha now!"

Bar a few exceptions, such as octogenarian Aboriginal artist Paddy Bedford, 2004 is stacked with twenty- and thirty-somethings presented as the latest uncomplicated incarnation of "the new". Ten curators from both NGV Australia and ACMI have chosen 130 artists to exhibit in their two gallery venues, on free-to-air television and across vast chunks of cyberspace and other virtual networks. Should 2004 be well received, the plan is to mount the national survey every three years, slotting into the calendar in years complementary to Sydney's Biennale and Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial (due again in 2005). At least the major sponsor, Ernst & Young, is happy. The management consultants, standing in as modern-day Medicis, are certain that 2004 offers "a snapshot of the most exciting things happening in Australian art today".

30 June 2004

Art borders blur at "2004 – Australian Culture Now"

2004 – Australian Culture Now, Federation Square, Melbourne. Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
***
Youth and the present are at the core of a major collaboration of two Melbourne galleries in an ambitious exhibition of Australian contemporary art, writes Michael Hutak. 

Nicholas Folland's I Think I Was Asleep 
"Now" is the operative word in this new survey of Australian contemporary art, the most ambitious mounted in five years, say co-hosts NGV Australia and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). 2004 – Australian Culture Now represents the first major collaboration between the two principal tenants of Federation Square in Melbourne, the former one of Australia's oldest cultural institutions, the latter barely two years old and playing catch-up.

At its June 14 launch, NGV director Gerard Vaughan announced 2004 had been "deliberately timed for the Biennale [of Sydney]", which opened a week earlier, "to get international visitors to see both buildings fully operating". Hardly a noble aspiration but cultural tourists seeking a quality museum experience will still come away sated. Certainly, 2004 leaves a stronger aftertaste than the thematic conceits of the Sydney Biennale. On Reason and Emotion is left looking a little tired and emotional against the optimism of 2004's brash demand for "strayin' kulcha now!"

3 June 2004

Collectables: End result: lots


With the share price of troubled Tempo Services hitting a five-year low of $1.02 on May 4, its chairman, John Schaeffer, could at least survey the recent dispersal of his art collection warmed by the knowledge he was getting top dollar. However, as the dust settles from the "garage sale of the century" at Rona, Schaeffer's $28m Bellevue Hill mansion in Sydney's eastern suburbs, collectors are entitled to ask: was it worth the hype?

It was to Christie's, which spent a small fortune promoting the sale. If there are any other cash-strapped multimillionaire art lovers out there, Rona was a great ad for Christie's, which shifted 570 lots - $5.19m in paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative ephemera - at top-gun clearance rates by lot (85.3%) and by value (88.7%).

13 May 2004

Collectables: Fairweather trading

Ian Fairweather, Last Supper, (1958).
Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales
The modernists have been trumping the contemporaries in the salerooms, while a Picasso scooped the pot, writes Michael Hutak.

There's an inverse – some would say perverse – law of the Australian art market that says the more conventional the wisdom, the less sway it holds. An example: in the past few years, we've been told the moderns favoured by old fogeys are on their way out as the market moves to accommodate cashed-up young fogeys, who allegedly prefer contemporary art and art photography.

Last week's round of fine-art auctions threw that theory on the scrapheap as record sales of modernists such as Ian Fairweather and Margaret Preston cast the passed-in works of hitherto hot contemporaries Tracey Moffatt, Tim Maguire and John Kelly into a new, uncertain light.


8 April 2004

Ruckus over resale royalty

With pressure mounting for the introduction of a resale royalty on works of art every time they change hands, auction houses are becoming anxious, writes Michael Hutak.

Fine art worth more than $91m changed hands in Australia's booming auction market last year, yet the artists responsible for those works (or their heirs) saw not a red cent of it. One auction house, Sotheby's, shifted $7.9m of Aboriginal art at one sale last June. Yet living conditions on many of the remote desert communities where the finest indigenous artworks originate remain a national disgrace.

Media attention on anomalies such as the late Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula – one of the originators of the dot-painting phenomenon who spent his final years in abject penury while works he had sold for $30 went for hundreds of thousands in the saleroom – has accelerated calls for a resale royalty to be introduced in Australia.

Such a royalty, also known as a droite de suite after the French scheme that has been in place since the 1920s, is a fee – typically fixed at about 5% of the hammer price – that goes to the artist every time an artwork changes hands in the secondary market. Support for such a scheme gained momentum in 2002 when Rupert Myer made a resale royalty a key recommendation in his federal government inquiry into visual arts and crafts funding.

However, the prospect of a new tax on collectors has the secondary art market in a lather as it collectively points towards a fast-falling chunk of sky.

"It's been highly unsuccessful in France," says Paul Sumner, chief executive of Sydney auction house Lawson-Menzies. "And it hasn't actually reduced the gap between rich and poor artists – it just rewards artists who are already successful."

Sumner, who has just an-nounced that his firm will take on market leader Sotheby's for a slice of the lucrative Aboriginal market, says Lawson-Menzies will pay 2% of its normal commission on sales of indigenous works into a new foundation that will donate funds to improve health and living conditions in Aboriginal communities.

The foundation hopes to raise $200,000 in the first year. However, Sumner acknowledges the impetus for setting it up is to derail the resale royalty juggernaut. "We're trying to head it off," he said. "We think it will be a nightmare to administer and ultimately will only hurt the artists."

But citing a 2003 Australia Council study, which found that 50% of Australia's artists earn less that $7500 a year from their art, Labor arts spokeswoman Senator Kate Lundy argues that artists couldn't be hurting much more than they are now.

The creation of a decent ongoing income stream for artists "is way overdue and it's Labor Party policy to introduce a resale royalty", she says. Lundy, who introduced a private member's bill on the issue in the Senate on March 11, concedes it has no chance of passing without government support. However, she says she's "calling the government's bluff on this. There's simply no excuse for them to delay their response to Myer any longer."

Last September, a year after Myer reported, then-Arts Minister Richard Alston promised a response on resale royalties before the end of the year. Six months later, his replacement, Daryl Williams, who also retires at the next election, is backing away from the idea.

"The government will only commit taxpayers' money to developing an implementation strategy if it is satisfied that we should implement a resale royalty scheme," a spokesman says. In other words, it's not satisfied.

Labor's draft bill is modelled on European Union legislation, where a droite de suite will extend to member countries from 2006. Lundy was advised by the National Association for the Visual Arts, the Australian Copyright Council and Arts Law, which have urged the government to act on Myer's recommendation and implement the scheme.

"We need a decision," NAVA executive director Tamara Winikoff says. "This issue has been kicking around for 20 years and it should be a bipartisan issue. We're very pleased that Labor has committed itself to a bill, and we urge the government to support it."

Not everyone in the trade is contrary. Sotheby's Tim Klingender has gone on record several times in favour of a droite de suite. "I think it would be great if it could be made workable," he says. And leading Melbourne Aboriginal art dealer Gabrielle Pizzi believes a resale royalty is "an inevitability".

But she warns: "Some people will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it."

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First published in The Bulletin

3 April 2004

Collectables: Dake Frank

Auction prices fetched by some Australian contemporary artists are rocketing. And those about to take off display obvious signs.

The hullabaloo over painter Tim Maguire hit the heights last November when Untitled 1997, a massive split-screen canvas, brought $329,000 at Christie’s Melbourne – the third time in 2003 that a new peak was set for Maguire's florid photo-realist visions. Just one year earlier Deutscher~Mennzies had offered a comparable work with an estimate of just $10k-$15,000 (it sold for $35,250).

The latest benchmark sent market watchers into overdrive: Maguire was the new John Kelly, who was the new Garry Shead, who was the new Bill Robinson, etc. Such headline-grabbing sales are more salacious evidence of art’s potential for a quick return-on-investment, and the cue for another tranche of cashed-up, dumbed-down, saleroom ingenues to turn up, grab a paddle and start splurging.

But those hoping to get a piece of “the next Tim Maguire” should also note that the savvy buy and sell on the way up, not at the top of the market. The time to pick saleroom sensations is before they become headline fodder. Maguire, however, did fit a model that made him ripe for reaping so here’s a quick checklist for pinpointing who’s next.

First, go for beauty over brains. Ugly doesn’t wash in the saleroom, no matter how much the critics might wax lyrical. Second, stick to contemporary artists, the market’s current growth area. Third, seek out artists in their late 30s and 40s with a good body of work behind them; those who have shown they can conduct a sustained professional practice. Fourth, opt for artists who have been on the critics’ radar for more than a decade but are still new or unknown to the saleroom, ie. those with less than 50 works offered at auction. And lastly, if you plan to hang the work awhile before moving it on, it helps to like it.

Still sound like too much work? Forced to tip, 45 year old Queensland-based painter, Dale Frank, fits the Maguire model to a tee. Ever-present on the contemporary scene for over 20 years, the prolific Frank shows with the country’s leading galleries and has impeccable critical credentials, with reams of favourable reviews, several monographs published, and a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2001 to boot.

Represented in every major state gallery collection, Franks’ luscious abstract works already bring vast slabs of colour to white-walled foyers and living-rooms from Kirribilli to Kew. Yet Australian Art Sales Digest records reveals just 47 works have ever been offered at auction.

However, again last November, Christie’s set a new artist record of $21,150 for a handsome 2 metre square painting. That was the jump on previous sales that canny collectors look for and it is a very attractive floor price for works that could easily climb to $100,000-plus without raising an eyebrow.

[For the record, I don’t own any of them.]


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Abridged version published in The Bulletin

2 April 2004

Art Market Notebook: Autumn 2004

The Rise of the Others

The new year began with the fine art auction market flush with cash but fraught with competition, reports Michael Hutak

In 2003 the great Australian art boom continued to gather pace with another $91 million worth of fine art changing hands in the saleroom - a 15.91 per cent increase on 2002 ($79.2) and an aggregate neatly split four ways between Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Deutscher Menzies and “others”, according to statistics compiled by the Australian Art Sales Digest. Tellingly, the biggest increase came not from the big three but in the crowded “other” category, centred mainly around players in Sydney. Swelled by a resurgent Lawson~Menzies (which actually recorded a better sale aggregate than Christies in the last round for 2003 in late spring), last year’s new comers, Cromwells, and the new old-money/new money partnership, Bonhams & Goodman, sales for the “other” category almost doubled in 2003 to $22.3 million, an aggregate representing more business than the entire auction market in 1993. That year it stood at a paltry $19.3m, in the days when “Christoby’s” pretty much split the blue chips among themselves leaving the potato chips for Leonard Joel’s (which celebrated 85 years in the business in March).

The year before, Sydney was big story. 2002 was the year Deutscher Menzies established their March sale in Sydney as a season-opening fixture on the calendar. It was when Sotheby’s cleared an incredible $7.9 million worth of Aboriginal art in June at their first foray into Sydney with indigenous art. And Cromwells, L~M, and Bonhams & Goodman embarked on a harbour city turf war which has made competition for quality stock fiercer than ever. In 2003 contemporary names like Tim Maguire and John Kelly were on everyone’s wish list, but it would prove to be the year of Russell Drysdale, who had four of the top ten highest prices achieved at auction, including the only picture to break the million barrier last year, The Outstation, sold by Sotheby’s in Melbourne in May.

Sotheby's, which topped the sales aggregates for the third year running with $27.3m, has made corporate dispersals the bedrock of its success, having managed sale of the Fairfax, BP, AXA and Kerry Stokes collections in the past two years alone. 2004 continues the trend with the planned March dispersal of the Western Mining Corporation Contemporary Art Collection, with an aggregate estimate of $806k to $1.2m. As to why so many corporations have shed themselves of art in recent years, Sotheby’s MD Mark Fraser told AAC the reasons are myriad: “Such things as share holder accountability; focusing on core activities when art is peripheral area; big increases in the value of artworks; secondary reasons can be a change of premises or a merger or de-merger of companies.” Naming Wesfarmers, Macquarie Bank, Westpac and ANZ as having the finest corporate collections still extant in Australia today, Fraser did say he knew of no major corporations that have started collections in the last two years. In fact several more firms have also sold off their collections confidentially with Sotheby’s through the saleroom.

Over at Christie’s, new paintings director, Jon Dwyer, would be happy with his first year at the helm, one which restored respectability to the French-owned firm’s local operations to post $21m in sales, a 64 per cent turnaround on 2002 revenue. The company had been haemorrhaging market share, living on the glory days of the $16m Mertz sale in 2000 – until Dwyer opened his account with a record $7.1m aggregate at last year’s May mixed vendor auction. 2004 couldn’t have begun better with Christie’s winning the plum business to disperse the contents of ‘Rona’, John Schaeffer’s landmark Bellevue Hill mansion. Shaeffer has compiled arguably the world’s finest private collection of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art and is now in the process of selling off great chunks of it in order to shore up his exposure to the declining fortunes of his listed cleaning company, Tempo Services, (mooted in early March as a takeover target). Christie’s had plucked the Shaeffer sale out from under arch rival Sotheby’s, which had “limited success” last September in shifting the remains of Shaeffer’s once prized collection of 19th century and colonial-era Australian paintings for well below the low estimates. As Christie's sex it up to break the record as the biggest single vendor sale in this country, the proof will come, come April.

The appreciating Australian dollar however will have varied effects this year on the international market for Aboriginal art, where it will dampen foreign demand but entice foreign consignment of works held overseas. The latter effect is also expected to be felt in the wider market for Australian modernist and contemporary art. And Sotheby’s will have their first serious competition in indigenous art since 2000 when it met, matched and repelled Deutscher~Menzies’ fast and furious foray into the market. Both Christies and Lawson~Menzies have appointed Aboriginal art specialists, and the latter intends to conduct two sales a year of Aboriginal art. Shaun Dennison, a management consultant turned art expert, has been appointed to oversee Christie’s expansion in Aboriginal Art. While the party line has always been that the firm has “traditionally” not separated streams of modern and contemporary Australian art “ethnographically” and has instead incorporated Aboriginal works within the context of its normal seasonal offerings, Dwyer would “not rule out stand-alone auctions of Aboriginal art in the future”.

And at Lawson~Menzies, Cooee Gallery proprietor Adrian Newstead has come on board as Aboriginal specialist for a planned two-sales-per-year operation. CEO Paul Sumner has identified a new niche for his firm, after his art department was recently submerged into brother house Deutscher~Menzies in a bury-the-hatchet manoevre late last year that put an end to the dog-eat-dog competition between Rod Menzies two auction houses. Sumner hopes to head off finger-pointers with his announcement that L~M will pay two per cent of its normal commission on sales of indigenous works into a new foundation charged with donating funds to improve health and living conditions in Aboriginal communities. This move also offers Sumner the opportunity to denounce noises from Canberra that a resale royalty, as recommended by the 2002 Myer Report will be introduced into the Australian secondary art market. While it’s been generally acknowledged that a droite de suite in Australia will do much to support indigenous artists, the prospect of a what amounts to a new tax on collectors has many secondary market operators like Sumner in a lather. "We're trying to head it off," he said. "We think it will be a nightmare to administer and ultimately will only hurt the artists."

For his part Sotheby’s Aboriginal art guru, Tim Klingender says he supports a resale royalty and remains unfazed by his new competitors. Sumner, however, is in a unique position to know his rival, having been Klingender’s MD during the period when Sotheby’s was fending away Deutsher~Menzies challenge in 2000. And since taking over at L~M last year he has had the advantage of swapping notes with D~M’s Chris Deutscher about what went wrong. “I’ve seen both sides of the fence and I know what the processes are at Sotheby’s and I know what to expect.”

Klingender countered that he never comments on the activities of other firms… “especially that one!”.


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First published in Australian Art Collector

Art Market Notebook: Autumn 2004 -- The Rise of the Others


The new year began with the fine art auction market flush with cash but fraught with competition, reports Michael Hutak


 First published in Australian Art CollectorIn 2003 the great Australian art boom continued to gather pace with another $91 million worth of fine art changing hands in the saleroom - a 15.91 per cent increase on 2002 ($79.2) and an aggregate neatly split four ways between Christie's, Sotheby's and Deutscher Menzies and "others" according to statistics compiled by the Australian Art Sales Digest. Tellingly, the biggest increase came not from the big three but in the crowded "other" category, centred mainly around players in Sydney. Swelled by a resurgent Lawson~Menzies (which actually recorded a better sale aggregate than Christies in the last round for 2003 in late spring), last year's new comers, Cromwells, and the new old-money/new money partnership, Bonhams & Goodman, sales for the 'other' category almost doubled in 2003 to $22.3 million, an aggregate representing more business than the entire auction market in 1993. That year it stood at a paltry $19.3m, in the days when "Christobys" pretty much split the blue chips among themselves leaving the potato chips for Leonard Joel's (which celebrated 85 years in the business in March).

The year before, Sydney was the big story. 2002 was the year Deutscher Menzies established their March sale in Sydney as a season-opening fixture on the calendar. It was when Sotheby's cleared an incredible $7.9 million worth of Aboriginal art in June at their first foray into Sydney with indigenous art. And Cromwells, L~M, and Bonhams & Goodman embarked on a harbour city turf war which has made competition for quality stock fiercer than ever. In 2003 contemporary names like Tim Maguire and John Kelly were on everyone's wish list, but it would prove to be the year of Russell Drysdale, who had four of the top ten highest prices achieved at auction, including the only picture to break the million barrier last year, The Outstation, sold by Sotheby's in Melbourne in May.

Sotheby's, which topped the sales aggregates for the third year running with $27.3m, has made corporate dispersals the bedrock of its success, having managed sale of the Fairfax, BP, AXA and Kerry Stokes collections in the past two years alone. 2004 continues the trend with the planned March dispersal of the Western Mining Corporation Contemporary Art Collection, with an aggregate estimate of $806k to $1.2m. As to why so many corporations have shed themselves of art in recent years, Sotheby's MD Mark Fraser told AAC the reasons are myriad: "Such things as share holder accountability; focusing on core activities when art is peripheral area; big increases in the value of artworks; secondary reasons can be a change of premises or a merger or de-merger of companies." Naming Wesfarmers, Macquarie Bank, Westpac and ANZ as having the finest corporate collections still extant in Australia today, Fraser did say he knew of no major corporations that have started collections in the last two years. In fact several more firms have also sold off their collections confidentially with Sotheby's through the saleroom.

Over at Christie's, new paintings director, Jon Dwyer, would be happy with his first year at the helm, one which restored respectability to the French-owned firm's local operations to post $21m in sales, a 64 per cent turnaround on 2002 revenue. The company had been haemorrhaging market share, living on the glory days of the $16m Mertz sale in 2000 until Dwyer opened his account with a record $7.1m aggregate at last year's May mixed vendor auction. 2004 couldn't have begun better with Christies winning the plum business to disperse the contents of 'Rona', John Schaeffer's landmark Bellevue Hill mansion. Shaeffer has compiled arguably the world's finest private collection of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art and is now in the process of selling off great chunks of it in order to shore up his exposure to the declining fortunes of his listed cleaning company, Tempo Services, (mooted in early March as a takeover target). Christie's had plucked the Shaeffer sale out from under arch rival Sotheby's, which had "limited success" last September in shifting the remains of Shaeffer's once prized collection of 19th century and colonial-era Australian paintings for well below the low estimates. As Christie's sex it up to break the record as the biggest single vendor sale in this country, the proof will come, come April.

The appreciating Australian dollar however will have varied effects this year on the international market for Aboriginal art, where it will dampen foreign demand but entice foreign consignment of works held overseas. The latter effect is also expected to be felt in the wider market for Australian modernist and contemporary art. And Sotheby's will have their first serious competition in indigenous art since 2000 when it met, matched and repelled Deutscher~Menzies' fast and furious foray into the market. Both Christies and Lawson~Menzies have appointed Aboriginal art specialists, and the latter intends to conduct two sales a year of Aboriginal art. Shaun Dennison, a management consultant turned art expert, has been appointed to oversee Christie's expansion in Aboriginal Art. While the party line has always been that the firm has "traditionally" not separated streams of modern and contemporary Australian art "ethnographically" and has instead incorporated Aboriginal works within the context of its normal seasonal offerings, Dwyer would "not rule out stand-alone auctions of Aboriginal art in the future".

And at Lawson~Menzies, Cooee Gallery proprietor Adrian Newstead has come on board as Aboriginal specialist for a planned two-sales-per-year operation. CEO Paul Sumner has identified a new niche for his firm, after his art department was recently submerged into brother house Deutscher~Menzies in a bury-the-hatchet manoevre late last year that put an end to the dog-eat-dog competition between Rod Menzies two auction houses. Sumner hopes to head off finger-pointers with his announcement that L~M will pay two per cent of its normal commission on sales of indigenous works into a new foundation charged with donating funds to improve health and living conditions in Aboriginal communities. This move also offers Sumner the opportunity to denounce noises from Canberra that a resale royalty, as recommended by the 2002 Myer Report will be introduced into the Australian secondary art market. While it's been generally acknowledged that a droite de suite in Australia will do much to support indigenous artists, the prospect of a what amounts to a new tax on collectors has many secondary market operators like Sumner in a lather. "We're trying to head it off," he said. "We think it will be a nightmare to administer and ultimately will only hurt the artists."

For his part Sotheby's Aboriginal art guru, Tim Klingender says he supports a resale royalty and remains unfazed by his new competitors. Sumner, however, is in a unique position to know his rival, having been Klingender's MD during the period when Sotheby's was fending away Deutsher~Menzies challenge in 2000. And since taking over at L~M last year he has had the advantage of swapping notes with D~M's Chris Deutscher about what went wrong. "I've seen both sides of the fence and I know what the processes are at Sotheby's and I know what to expect."

First Published in Australian Art Collector

2 March 2004

Australian Auctions roundup, March 2004

After another record year in sales in 2003, the Australian fine art market has entered its second decade of sustained growth, still some people are never satisfied. When Deutscher~Menzies kicked off the 2004 season earlier this month with the highest grossing mixed-vendor sale of fine art ever held in this country – more than $8.4 million - it was greeted with either sublime indifference or churlishness at the failure of several high-value works by high-profile artists to sell, and of others to only meet the low end of the estimate set by the auction house.

One pundit dubbed the sale “a patchy start” to the year, pointing to passed-in works by saleroom favourites like John Brack, Norman Lindsay and John Olsen. Keen market watchers wondered if D~M had overestimated the strength of the top of the market, others saw instead "buyer fatigue" in the face of the runaway price inflation of some “top drawer” artists in recent years.

D~M’s national director, Damien Hackett, told The Bulletin his firm was “very concerned when high value items pass in, during any sale, but this can and does happen for many reasons, not just a weakening of the market… each sale is an individual transaction with its own specific circumstances attached.”

“With regard to John Brack,” said Hackett, “we had estimated Backs and Fronts ($450k to $550k) believing it to be one of the most important works to have come onto the market ever. The result, at $477,825, was in fact the fifth highest price ever achieved for a Brack. One important collector decided not to bid on the Brack, as he intended, because a family tragedy occurred a few days prior to the sale."

Hackett maintained the market for Brack remained strong, despite another work, The Club from 1989, passing in on an estimate of $230,000–260,000. He put the poor showing of other works down to “a number of clients who thought that some of the high value works would ‘fly’ and so did not enter the bidding. As a result, they were dismayed that they had missed out on things, especially the (Ian) Fairweather and the John Olsen”. Rather, the number of dealers buying, or under-bidding, on works in the $100,000 plus market meant “you would expect that (the dealers) are confident that there is more growth in the top end.” After $91 million in sales nationally last year, a 15 per cent increase on 2003, we guess they would be confident.

However one sector keen to get out of art quicksmart may offer the first tangible signs of a market reaching its tipping point. The great Australian corporate art sell-off resumed in 2004 with last week’s dispersal of Western Mining Corporation’s corporate art collection at Sotheby’s rooms in Melbourne. An aggregate of $1.28 million would have pleased WMC patriarch Hugh Morgan, the gross just pipping the high estimate for the entire sale. And with 21 new individual artist records – most notably for the late 20th century modernist, Leonard French, and moody Melbournite, Rick Amor - at least WMC found out they'd bought the right works. The clearance rate was an astonishing 98 per cent by lot.

Corporate sell-offs have become the bedrock of Sotheby’s market leadership in Australia: in the past two years they’ve flogged off the once-prized collections John Fairfax Ltd, BP, AXA and Kerry Stokes. Several other firms have sold off their collections confidentially through the saleroom, and Sotheby’s Managing Director, Mark Fraser says he knows of no major corporations that have started collections in that time. It will be interesting to watch for any moves by Wesfarmers, Macquarie Bank, Westpac or ANZ to liquidate their art assets. Fraser nominated these companies as having the finest corporate collections still extant in Australia today.

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Abridged version published in The Bulletin

2 January 2004

Australia's Most Collectable Artists, 2003

Profiles written for "Australia's Most Collectable Artists, 2003" from Australian Art Collector Magazine.

Since the late 1990’s Garry Shead has shot into that pantheon of Australian modernist figurative painters who can command prices in excess of $100k. Son of a Sydney North Shore estate agent, Shead is privately influenced by the occult, and works in themes which can traverse several series over several years, taking inspiration from sometimes oblique corners of Australian culture: DH Lawrence’s time on the NSW South Coast, the 1954 Royal Visit by Elizabeth Windsor, and, most recently, the “Ern Malley” poetry hoax of the 1940s, which see him tackle ceramics for the first time – urns etched with poems by Ern! Championed as logical inheritor of the mantle of Boyd and Nolan, Shead quickly embraced the comparison in a recent interview: “Definitely… I like the story telling aspect of painting. I like to express in painting something that’s already there but hasn’t (yet) been done in visual terms.” Sasha Grishin, Head of Art History ANU, the author of several books on Shead as well as catalogue essays for the artist’s exhibitions, says Shead is now “painting at the height of his powers.” He believes Shead is “arguably Australia’s finest lyrical expressionist painter”, adding that his prices continue to grow dramatically. In 1993, the year he won the Archibald Prize, Shead sold just two works at auction for an aggregate of $693. A decade later and one of 39 works at auction included The Secret, which Christies offered with an $80k upper estimate. It brought a new artist record of $129,250 – a spectacular indication that supply is failing to meet demand.

Gordon Bennett
Queenslander Gordon Bennett went to art school in the late 1980s, where he openly embraced the postmodern positions of the time, a legacy still seen to today in a practice the artists describes as “conceptual painting based on the semiotics of 'style' and paint application, images and text, historical and contemporary juxta-position.” Of mixed Scottish, English and Indigenous Australian heritage, Bennett was brought up as a 'white' Australian and has only investigated his Aboriginal heritage as an adult. While issues of race loom large in his work he denounces the term “urban Aborignal” artist as racist, and prefers to be understood as an artist pursuing strategies of appropriation. Dr Ian McLean, who lectures visual arts at the University of Western Australia, is impressed with the long-term commitment Bennett has shown to his practice. McLean compares Bennett to another Aboriginal artist, Judy Watson, who are both “very different painters, but in less than 15 years each has produced an impressive and substantial body of work and built very successful careers as artists.” Says McLean: “Both found their feet quickly and now are at critical stages in their career. However they have demonstrated stamina, commitment and talent as artists, and so probably are yet to produce their best work.” Bennett is well represented in major state galleries but most works remain in private hands. A rare appearance at auction in 2002 saw Bennett achieve his current saleroom peak of $47,500 for an early 1993 canvas. Always the provocateur, his most recent show at Sherman Galleries, in August 2003, conflated camouflage and Islamic designs with ungainly portraits of Saddam Hussein.

ADS Donaldson
Profiled in issue #24 Of Australian Art Collector, this Sydney abstractionist has had a red letter year culminating in making our list for the first time. Donaldson’s select international following walked away with works from the Armory art fair in New York in March and then at Art Basel in June, the world’s most prestigious art fair. In April Donaldson collaborated with fellow artist Elizabeth Pulie for a show at Sarah Cottier’s now defunct Gallery, where he also exhibited 3 enormous large scale silver and blue paintings. Another show of hard-edge abstract paintings at Pestorius Sweeney House in August prompted Brisbane and AAC critic Rex Butler to write in The Courier Mail that "the issues signaled in this modest little suburban gallery will come to dominate the coming century of Australian culture – the battle between ‘Australian’ and ‘unAustralian’ ways of seeing ourselves." Commissions for Aldi and the City of Sydney and another group show at the Kunsthalle Palazzo, near Basel, followed. Already next year Donaldson has group shows lined up in Wellington, New Zealand in March and at the Ivan Doughety Gallery, as part of the Sydney Biennale.

Ian Fairweather 1891-1974
With a body of work estimated at just 500 major works, this Scottish born ‘citizen of the world’ is often acknowledged as one of the most important artists of the 20th century to work in Australia. Fairweather spend between the wars travelling throughout Asia and Oceania; living first in China, later in Bali, the Philippines and India, taking in creative and cultural influences as he went. He first visited Australia in 1934, and took a studio briefly in Melbourne after the WWII but wouldn’t settle permanently until 1952, when he moved to Bribie Island, north of Brisbane. There he became involved in the local indigenous culture and would become the first and perhaps only non-Indigenous artist to successfully incorporate Aboriginal art into his practice, where it joined with disparate influences such as post-impressionism, Chinese calligraphy and Cubism in the realisation of outstanding abstract paintings. Most highly regarded are the abstracts of the late 1950s, early 1960s but works from throughout his career are keenly sought. Many already grace Australia’s major state collections, as well as overseas at the Tate and Liecester galleries and the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Although saleroom prices have been steadily trending up in recent years [his current auction record of $255,500 came in 2000], there is still value and room for significant growth. “For one of Australia’s most important 20th century painters,” says Sotheby’s Chairman, Justin Miller, “his works still seem reasonably priced to me when compared to the million dollar plus prices paid for iconic works by other truly great Australian painters.” Drawings and watercolours, which are more plentiful, may be easier to come by.

Robert Macpherson B.1937
This Brisbane based conceptual artist is an unlikely “grand old man” of Australian contemporary art but with more than three decades of cutting edge practice behind him, that’s just what he is. Macpherson has become a regular feature on our list, first appearing in 1999. Michael Snelling, Director of Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, goes as far as saying MacPherson is “probably the most interesting artist working in Australia today, although he may well remain an artist's artist.” Snelling characterises the artist as “conceptually tough, viscerally mesmerizing and continues to make work that is both local and global - parochial and universal…” The broadening of Macpherson’s reputation became complete in 2000 with the major survey show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, curated by Trevor Smith, recently appointed curator at the New Museum in New York. The show took over the whole bottom floor and some of the second at AGWA. “A scaled version toured to the MCA and looked just as impressive second time round,” says Snelling, “The catalogue was the best on an Australian artist seen here for many a year.” Macpherson was Australia's representative at the 2002 Sao Paolo biennale, and then in Face Up, backed by the Australia Council, at the prestigious Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin. Continues to be attractive to admirers of contemporary art, although works rarely surface on the secondary market.


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First published in Australian Art Collector magazine, Issue #27, Jan-Mar, 2004.