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.

Since 2001, eight prints of Moffatt's 1989 photograph, Something More #1, have found buyers for sums up to $117,500. However, punters finally brought something less to Christie's last week, marking the first time the artist's calling card has failed to sell at auction. Maguire's flower power also wilted badly, with just one of 10 works offered selling – a 2000 oil that still brought a tidy $135,625. Two of Kelly's cow canvases – only recently a must-have item, according to the pundits – passed through the saleroom friendless. Christie's sold just 60% of its catalogue for $4.9m; Sotheby's just 52% for $4.4m.

While the art trade prays that the gloomy grosses and dismal clearance rates were more an aberration than full-blown market correction, at the Art Gallery of NSW, it's all blue sky for Edmund Capon. The director was ebullient over his gallery's new acquisition, Fairweather's 1936 oil on compressed card, Tea Garden Peking. "It's a very big work and probably the most significant from his Chinese period," Capon says. “When we think of Fairweather we think of this strange, nomadic creature and this work sees him, I would say, at his most exotic.”

The Art Gallery Society coughed up $552,600, three times Christie's high estimate, and more than double the artist's previous auction record, set in 2000. Any suggestion that that was too much brings Capon out swinging: "We made a decision to get this painting so we went out and got it."

"We paid a record price but in the fullness of time, it's what matters for the collection that counts," says Capon. "The estimate was $120,000 to $180,000 but I knew that was ridiculously low. Our Fairweather collection is not terribly extensive, we have about twenty-odd works, but I’d say we’ve pretty much got him covered now.

“Certainly the price we paid bears much more relation to reality than the US$104m (AUD$143m) paid for that Picasso [Garçon à la Pipe at Sotheby's last Wednesday]. I mean, no painting is worth that much… That is just a trophy and I think it’s ultimately offensive when one considers recent events on the world stage.”

He has a point. For the cost of one painting, you could have bought every work sold at auction in Australialast year, and most of the year before that.


Abridged version first published in The Bulletin

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