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.

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?

RI: When I first came here (to Queen Street) the focus for art was almost exclusively in Paddington. Then after the ’91 recession Queen Street picked up, then suddenly a few years ago Sotheby’s moved in, Shapiro’s, Deutscher~Menzies, Michael Carr and it’s now very much at the centre of things. Now it’s become much like Bond Street in London. We’ve been here since 1976 and we’ve never had street frontage, then earlier this year we managed to get a lease on the shop in our own building and it’s been very good for making us simply more visible, and we find we’re getting new clients in off the street.

MH: Have you had a high turnover of clients over the years?

RI: Clients have a rhythm; you might have a QC, who’s been earning millions, who finally becomes a judge, drops back to earning $150k and stops collecting. There’s lots of new flashy money and like everyone else we need to get some of that, but we’re not as good at getting it as others, such as Denis Savill. I’m walking slowly after them, Denis is in a tank running them down. But Denis is a dealer who likes to own all his pictures... People consign things with us.

MH: Is this new money driving a booming art market, or is it just attracted it?

RI: New money is always attracted into art when the economy is performing well. But the difference between today and the last boom in the late 1980’s was that back then people were borrowing to buy assets. Today people are spending their own money, which means the market is built on genuine wealth and can’t really collapse today, like it did then.

But the truth of the matter is the market isn’t booming anyway. Just because you see seven pictures by Smart, Boyd or Whitely get high prices at auction, doesn’t mean there’s a boom, it just means that seven pictures achieved high prices. The market is meanwhile happily plodding along with that great bulk of collectors who buy something here, then buy something there. It’s those happy plodders who’ve kept us going through the dark years, and they were dark.

The high rollers can come in here and say all they want is a Jeffrey Smart - who used to show with us before he went over to Australian Galleries - because they’ve read about the sales for $300k plus, and there are always opportunists who come into the market when times are good to handle those sort of clients.

But for mine I’m happy to offer them a work by Fred Williams or Nicholas Harding or Lucien Freud and say “this will hold its value”. But what I’m not prepared to say is “you will make 20 per cent on this in 12 months”. The problem for us with these new clients is when they toddle off and buy from the opportunists and find their 20 per cent doesn’t materialise they say “fuck it”, and swear off buying art forever. That’s the great pity, but that’s also the price of greed.

MH: How has the rise in the auction trade affected your business?

RI: I have nothing to do with auctions. I neither buy nor sell at them. I would make two bids at auction per year, but only on behalf of a client. However I don’t believe the dealers shouldn’t feel threatened by the auction houses. For every painting where the hammer falls $500k, there is an underbidder walking the streets the next day with $480k to spend.

MH: Is there too much talk about the market today? Have we lost sight of the art?

RI: You can’t have too much talk about the market, I think it’s legitimate and necessary and inevitable, but there is too much talk today about money. Money is not the be-all-and-end-all. In the end we’re about bringing people into contact with that intangible quality that comes with the great work of art. Otherwise we might as well be selling pork-belly futures. And when all is said and done, what we are selling is our expertise and judgement of what a picture is worth. That’s why our regular collectors don’t bargain, whereas new clients try to bargain all the time.

AAC: What’s your view of the growth in art purchased through DIY super funds?

RI: I think the trend is very good because where a private person once might spend $10k per annum on art, they can now spend $30k to $40k, as long as one gets proper advice in setting it up. I’m told around 10 per cent of your fund should go towards art, anything above 20 per cent and you’re asking for the attention of the taxman.

I don’t believe these proposed pooled art funds are a particlarly good idea. I’m reminded of the British Railways Pension Fund which in the 60s and 70s bought a huge array of objects – furniture, jewellery, porcelain as well as old masters and fine art. After twenty years it had still made only one per cent more or less than blue chip stocks.

I don’t think (the so-called "managed art funds") will wash, there are too many fees off the top and your little picture needs to make 50 to 60 per cent on resale for you to see an overall return. Speaking to someone who was putting one of these funds together, I understand they’re not actually for people who want to collect art or build a collection but are aimed strictly at investors.

MH: Do you deal with many such “investors”?

RI: We are not “investment advisors”, we are art dealers, but I do have people, usually young people, who come into the gallery with a wad of money wanting to invest. I say to them: “I will be happy to invest this for you as long as you do exactly as I say. If you want chop and change and buy and sell you’re on your own.” We sometimes have so called art consultants who present themselves as “investment advisors” coming through looking to buy works for their clients.

MH: Do you offer a commission, discount or “finder’s fee” to these consultants?

RI: No, of course not, fuck ‘em. We deal in art, not in clients. The art world is magic, it’s great fun, and all the cowboys and cowgirls are not going to affect the bedrock of the business which, for me, is very much built on dealing with private clients one-on-one. We don’t deal much with corporations, which mostly are selling at the moment. But the point of running an art gallery is to put artworks on walls so that people might see and appreciate them. We showed a first edition of Goya’s Disasters of War and we had literally thousands come through. More than 70 per cent of the people that come through the gallery are there just to look and that’s a major part of what we do.

MH: What about managing your artists? How do you approach that?

RI: Some artists need managing, some don’t. ALL artists need ‘nannying’; they need their paints bought and their bottoms wiped occasionally. We are very active in promoting our artists. We’ve just assisted Gwyn Hanssen Pigott mount a show at the Tate St Ives (in Cornwall, U.K., runs till September 26).

MH: Do you follow the international art fair circuit?

RI: We’re not really interested in art fairs. We went to the Hong Kong art fair twice in the early 1990s when Mr Keating was in power and believed the region should be interested in us. I notice Gene Sherman is always showing in Asia but I really don’t know that Asia is any more interested in us than it ever was. Art markets are parochial; there are very few artists who fly internationally. Of course, we do deal in the work of such artists – Picasso, Hockney, Auerbach, Freud -

MH: Tell us about dealing in the market for Freud prints.

RI: We are one of only two galleries in the world (the other being Marlborough Gallery, London) licensed by Freud’s sole agents, Acquavella Galleries in New York, to sell his prints and we’ve had great success doing just for over two decades now. Twenty years ago I knew Freud’s London agent, James Kirkman, well, and we sold our first prints to clients here for just $1000. Today they go for $75k. It’s been a considerable part of our business over the years. We’ve survived the peaks and troughs over the decades but in the last three years especially we’ve been getting more and more successful.

MH: To what do you attribute your success?

RI: I love to bring people into contact with beautiful things and I have a truly wonderful life. But really it all boils down to forging strong connections, and being good and middle class and paying your bills. Earlier this year I had dinner with David Hockney one night, dinner with Hockney and Lucien Freud the next night, and then lunch the next day with Frank Auerbach – all those sorts of personal friendships are wonderful and invigorating but it also helps the business. When they go back and see their dealers I have little doubt they might say: “I had dinner with Rex the other night. Make sure we save something for him.”


Abridged version published in Australian Art Collector

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