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%).

"For the vendor, these house sales work," one industry insider said. "Most of the big-ticket items [at Rona] wouldn't have done so well if they'd been put through a normal multi-vendor 'dec arts' or fine arts sale." This was echoed by Roger McIlroy, Christie's Australian MD, who praised "the market appeal of single-owner collections of quality with impeccable provenance".

He then added, tellingly: "It augurs well for the ongoing private sales from The John H. Schaeffer Collection." Rona was really just an elaborate prelude for the main game: the sale of 15 of Schaeffer's most valuable pre-Raphaelite pictures in London on June 9 at Christie's (as well as several more being offered privately through St James's dealer, Angela Neville).

Included is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Pandora, for which Schaeffer paid a record œ2.6m ($6.6m) at Christie's in 2000. The upper estimate next month is just œ1.2m ($3.1m).

But Schaeffer's losses aren't just his own. Of the 94 paintings and sculptures he has lent the Art Gallery of NSW since 1999, just one remains in the gallery's care: Gerrit van Honthorst's Merry musician with violin under his left arm (1624).

Meanwhile, Christie's has denied that it snatched the Rona contract from under Sotheby's nose by offering to conduct the sale for, as one press report claimed, "zero seller's commission, against a backdrop of allegations that Schaeffer owed Christie's London money".

"John Schaeffer has always honoured his financial obligations to Christie's," says McIlroy. "We did not conduct the sale for zero commission but negotiated a much reduced fee, which reflected both Christie's desire to handle the sale and the need to spend money to make money."

Spend it they did, on 7500 catalogues, 10,000 brochures, an international print advertising campaign and no less than five private parties targeting "high-wealth individuals". More than 3000 people traipsed through Rona to gawk and dream.

First published in The Bulletin

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