By Terry Ingram, on 04-May-2016

Mossgreen sold the majority of its leading lots in its auction of Fine Australian and International Art in its swish new rooms in Melbourne on May 2 and 3. These included a painting by the French artist Henri Martin for the low estimate of $100,000 hammer ($124,000 with premium) to an overseas bidder on the phone, of course. But where was its stamp department when a painting by a lesser known South Australian artist, lot 56 was sold? Terry Ingram asks.

Mossgreen sold the majority of its leading lots in its auction of Fine Australian and International Art in its swish new rooms in Melbourne on May 2 and 3. These included a painting by the French artist Henri Martin for the low estimate of $100,000 hammer ($124,000 with premium) to an overseas bidder on the phone, of course. But where was its stamp department when a painting by a lesser known South Australian artist, lot 56 was sold? Terry Ingram asks.

The department was clearly working through the substantial amount of top quality material coming through both the Charles Leski and Prestige Philately sources of the business. Stamp collectors probably would have been surprised to be told that the lot had any relevance to them and saleroom habitués scratched their heads about the identity of the artist responsible for the work which sold for more than three times the estimate.

But is this not what Mossgreen has made all the fuss about in marketing itself as a comprehensive auction house?

The misadventure is as a result of the old Australia Post policies, as they never promoted their stamp designers by so much as putting their names on the stamps.

The artist responsible for lot 56 made an important contribution to philately. She designed what is considered to be the first abstract designed postage stamps, as well as several other series.

Gallery-goers if not saleroom habitués should have known of the artist Erica McGilchrist from the exhibition held of her work two years ago at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art.

The work sold through Mossgreen, titled Monument in Pastoral Disguise, 1963 would have been painted either in Germany, where Erica studied and lived from 1961 - 63, or on her return to Melbourne late that year.

The colour palette was unusual but the imagery characteristic of her abstract work from the 1950s and early ’60s, using organic forms and landscape references symbolically. which Lorna Short, an assistant curator at Melbourne's Heidi Museum, is working on decoding. So the meaning of the title remains a mystery.

Offered in the second (that is the lower priced) half of the auction did not rate any words in the catalogue other than the basic description. The catalogue entry left a question mark as to the year of her death, but did include the year of her birth.

It was well disguised in fact, although the estimates were in line with past prices and the artist's past low profile.

In keeping with this profile, the painting was in a very bruised state with indications that it might even have been nailed years ago into the frame.   

Although the goodly sized (120 by 90 cm) oil on board did not relate directly to the stamp except in the abstraction, anyone who sent a Christmas card in 1967 deserves to be reminded of it although they will have to consult Mossgreen's stamp people to establish if the stamp has any value of its own.

It was a philatelic breakthrough in that it was the first abstract design on an Australian stamp. The stamp was on the theme of Christmas theme of peace on earth approached through the symbols of different religions.

The painting would have required Mossgreen to find a philatelist with a long bow to pin down such a work but if it were to happen the place would most likely be at Mossgreen which has the broadest spread of any auction house in Australia. I have seen an art dealer at a stamp auction once – Anne McCormick of Sydney – there for stamped envelopes containing interesting letters,

Work by McGilchrist, this neglected by this neglected but influential artist, designer and teacher (and even dancer) and political activist will one day creep into the evening sale as opposed to the day sale segment.

This work did well, given that it appears to have been a transitional work (between styles) dating from after her sojourn in Germany and her exhibition at the Qantas Gallery in London in 1964.

It is tempting to think that she may have seen or encountered Brett Whiteley who was working in London in his still under-appreciated abstract manner at the time, and attracting interest from UK art museums.

Despite her connection with the Syme family McGilchrist was neglected in her day and even more so since her demise in 2014, so the $3720 price ($3000 hammer) represents an auction record for all of the near 60 works by her that have appeared in the records of the Australian Art Sales Digest. The previous high of $2086 was achieved at a Lawson’s sale. I suspect Norman Rosenblat as the culprit who has been mining this rich lode although he did not buy this lot. He joined classes by the artist when she had a studio in St Kilda Road and is a ferocious champion of this period.

Made on estimates of $500 to $700 the tendency has been on the up especially after her bequest to Heide last year to fund further exhibitions of women's work. McGilchrist also bequeathed her meticulous archives to Heide which included correspondence with author Patrick White and others within her school and other eminent citizens who shared her interest in the environment and feminism.

A book by Short, who organised the Heidi McGilchrist exhibition, is expected to be launched when the restoration of an important mural she did at the University of Melbourne is completed and the mural unveiled.

The 1958–59 mural, Legend of Being was originally funded by the American cosmetician Helena Rubinstein, and has recently been restored as part of the building works at University College - a project being led by Lovell Chen architects who are supporting Heide’s monograph.

One of the subsequent lots, Anglesea, Western Cliffs, a watercolour and ink by friend and collaborator Eveline Syme, a representational artist, sold for $1486 against estimates, before premium, of $800 to $1200 maintaining the influence of this particular circle.

On the very same night at another auction house, another South Australian woman artist Kathleen Sauerbier attracted a lot of interest. But she already is subject of a book, A Modern Pursuit Book by Gloria Strzelecki and is likely to be reported elsewhere.

Mossgreen's 320 lot sale grossed $935,852 (with premium) or 92.3 per cent of the low estimate of $1,013,600.

Less than 30 people turned out to attend the first, evening session, and less than half a dozen were left when the session concluded.

But that was more than enough for the mere 46 works on offer and encouraging given they had to wrap up as ruggedly as the character depicted on the catalogue cover, John Bracks Cold Figure, 1960 (Lot 1 ) on what for Sydney visitors would have been a cold and blustery night.

It was only just possible to know that the sitter was a woman after a virtual forensic examination of the painting. The estimates of $30,000 to $40,000 on the work, a watercolour and gouache of goodly size for the medium, 68 by 51 cm was based on the price of $41,480 paid for a similar figure in the Peter Elliott collection sold by Mossgreen on the last but one day in August last year when the weather was beginning to warm up.

The sex hardly mattered to one interested buyer who considered it a very fine pointillist abstract on the basis of its lack of representationality and the intricate composition of dots.

The sale split was so organised in accordance with the overseas experience where the major lots are offered on the first night.

It is true that a Picasso was offered on the Mossgreen's first night but it was not a night for the girls to wear their pearls.

John Kelly's work used to be the talk of the town but a vertical horse stuck in a lift with an open door surely hails from his mannerist period and it was not a surprise the bidding stalled and the lot was passed in at $36,000 despite the relatively lengthy catalogue entry. It is interesting to see that Kelly, apart from having an Irish name, is now living in Ireland which treats artists in an exemplary fashion. Buyers tend to like his more humorous cows.

No Seats Reserved, (Lot 13 ) the Picasso, a drypoint etching from the minotaure series went for $76,880 including premium, or just above the upper estimate of $60,000 hammer.

it went to one of the founder company's stamp men, Charles Leski on the balcony who held a number of bids from different commissioners and was the “standing bidder” referred to several times when successful bids were called.

No provenance was given on the overseas lots although the Martin was said to have been purchased by a local dealer of standing about 15 years ago in the US.

The variously described avant garde and conservative artist Frank Brangwyn is thought to have done as many as 12,000 works during his lifetime. It was decided after cataloguing that, Venice (Lot 15 ), might not be one of these, and the cataloguing was changed to “attributed” to be on the safe side. Estimated at $5000 to $8000 it sold for $6500 hammer to a telephone bidder. A lot of Brangwyn’s works are in Australia thanks to a Victorian senator of the 1950s who went to his studio and a New Zealand dealer who dropped them by here on his way back from the artist's studio to Auckland earlier.

Two overseas paintings did stay in Australia. That is, in terms of subject rather than attribution. The big handsome and presentable oils by the Tasmanian old aged pensioner Haughton Forrest each went well over their estimates of $18,000 to $25,000 to make $32,240 each.

The detail was very crisp unlike an offering later in the catalogue which also suffered from the depiction of stormier seas. The two which sold well were views of Wales and of the Lake District.

Mossgreen gave another reason for the bundling types of sales offerings together in the one catalogue on separate days.

It gave the company a chance to showpiece the big ticket lots and also to give owners of low priced works a chance to sell them. Some auction houses do not do this but refer them to the bottom-feeder auctions.

The accumulation of experience and knowledge that the company has assembled in Jon Dwyer (a second generation Leonard Joel specialist) and Frances Lindesay AM (former NGV curator) made it too early to establish what kind of an impact the revitalisated Mossgreen was going to make on the much sought after multi-vendor market.

This is possibly because they and other specialists are being called upon to help with the one-owner sales which have become a signature part of the enterprise.

It is probably too soon for Melbourne in the year, period, as art traders, especially gallerists, traditionally only come out of their hibernation weeks and sometimes months into the year and putting together the first sale of the year becomes a big challenge.

In this, Mossgreen is at a disadvantage to auctioneers that are more Sydney-centric like Deustcher + Hackett which has put together a more formidable mixed vendor sale to start off its year in Melbourne this week.

Of Mossgreen's really big art brass only John Dwyer, who took the auction, was a visible presence on the first night. He took the sale, very fluently and business-like. Anna Hombsch took the day sale with equal aplomb although it was disappointing that the unsold lots were sold without being stated to be unsold which Sotheby's US has established as the international standard. There was no attempt to hide this however.

Even stock owning galleries took a raincheck on both days – there really little reason to actually come along and the present trade mood is not to buy but to sell – certainly if the Denis Savill consignment is any guide.

With fierce competition to secure consignments at the top end of the market it was clear that the day sale was going to have the most interesting offerings but even here the traders were cautious and one big buyer in the lesser price league told your correspondent that she was staying away because she might be tempted to buy and this was not the time to do so. A lot of people were doing their own budgeting as the Government brought down its own.

The day sale was more reminiscent of the old days of Joel’s at the Malvern Town Hall with desirable little lots by little known Impressionist artists in the back annex. In 1982 there was an Iso Rae which made a then staggering $1200 to dealer Reg Longden.

A work catalogued as an Iso Rae was withdrawn from the latest sale for reasons unknown but such has been the changes in the market place especially the swing from secondary Impressionists to the modern that it might well not make more today.


Sale Referenced: Fine Australian & International Fine Art - Day 1, Mossgreen Auctions, Melbourne, 02/05/2016

About The Author

Terry Ingram inaugurated the weekly Saleroom column for the Australian Financial Review in 1969 and continued writing it for nearly 40 years. His scoops include the Whitlam Government's purchase of Blue Poles in 1973 and repeated fake scandals (from contemporary art to antique silver) and auction finds. He has closely followed the international art, collectors and antique markets to this days. Terry has also written two books on the subjects