By Terry Ingram, on 11-May-2016

Anyone who saw the movie Groundhog Day will remember the characters were trapped in a present day when everything kept happening over and over again. That was how art auction habitués must have felt at the Intercontinental in Sydney on Tuesday night when the Denis Savill Collection of Australian Art went under the hammer of Sotheby's Australia.

Only about a dozen of the 120 lots on offer had not been exposed to view in the saleroom in the last 20 years and many of those had come up in the past two years. As a result, the exciting and exhilarating moments were inspired mostly by two lots. One of these lots moreover had been seen before but not in its present context.

It must have felt like Groundhog Day at the Intercontinental in Sydney on Tuesday night when the Denis Savill Collection of Australian Art went under the hammer of Sotheby's Australia. Only about a dozen of the 120 lots on offer had not been exposed to view in the saleroom in the last 20 years and many of those had come up in the past two years. As a result, the exciting and exhilarating moments were inspired mostly by two lots. One of these lots moreover had been seen before but not in its present context.

So whether they had pigs in them, like the pink ceramic specimen depicted in Charles Meere's Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend (Lot 14 ), or the occasional “shig” (Arthur Boyd's cross between a sheep and a pig) the prices were mostly informed by the estimate (plus a little) based on the last sale price for the artist, which were the prices of the very same lots being offered on the night. The Meere, lot 14, was typical selling for $23,180 including buyer's premium against its price of $19,000 hammer at the Reg Grundy sale in June 2013 and Sotheby's Australia estimate of $20,000 to $25,000

This solid outcome was an achievement in itself as Mr Savill, the major buyer at auction for a couple of decades. was not bidding, even for friends. The sale was a clearing of the decks for his retirement including donations of art to regional art galleries. It grossed $5,355,678 or 86.7 per cent by volume and 183.8 per cent by value. Hobart dealer Nevin Hurst had a similarly focussed auction in 2006 and grossed $1.65 million.

Mr Savill still has further to go as he is said to have a large number of works by Australian Impressionist artists, especially Arthur Henry Fullwood, possibly by a different sales method; and he and his partner Ann are keeping some of their favourites to surround then in their big newly acquired Bellevue Hill house acquired for $6.5 million.

The two works which fired were Sidney Nolan's River-Bank 1964 (Lot 40 ) which made $1.35 million hammer against estimates of $600,000 to $900,000 and Charles Blackman's The Ceremony (Lot 29 ) which made $500,000 (estimate $250,000 to $300,000).

These were important works approaching trophy status and benefited substantially from their cataloguing by Geoffrey Smith and David Hansen respectively.

The Nolan went to a telephone bidder and the Blackman to a client of Melbourne fine art consultant Ian Rogers, so it might be churlish to suggest that their pricing was evidence of the growing inequality that is gripping the world, as we have no idea where they went. But there is also a lot of money yielding very little lying in pension and savings accounts.

The works, of course could have gone to struggling tradies although auction houses do not accept large payments in cash without reporting them. The chef d'oeuvres and trophy works everywhere have been racing off into the sunset like Ned Kelly with Constable Scanlon in pursuit.

Prices paid for the humbler priced works have been moving far less dramatically even in simple percentage terms.

The Blackman went little noticed when last offered for sale at Bonhams. The price this time benefited from a catalogue essay suggesting it was in effect, part of a girl with flower series, which forms a serious body of work separate from other Blackman's other school girl offerings. The essay on the Riverbank painting, a picture which we did not know about, which drew comparisons with works in a New Zealand public gallery (Dunedin) and the Tarra Warra Museum was a remarkable tour de force.

Mr Smith, as chairman of Sotheby's Australia which he partially owns, owed Mr Savill some big favours, as did other members of the auction industry, for his strong buying particularly in the last year or two. Mr Savill has been the master of quantitative easing to the art auction world over this period, spending as if art were loft insulation.

Sotheby's pulled out all stops, even bringing their dinner suits out of their wardrobes, for the occasion although Theodore Bruce seem to have cottoned onto this bit of toff-like presentation for much lesser occasions.

Sotheby's is unlikely to have charged him vendors commission. The buyer's premium usually does not go to the vendor but overseas there has been a drift to remit some of this, such is the prestige attached to securing fine art works.

The sale included a lot of the inevitably slightly bland, lower priced material designed to democratise the Savill label which has been a remarkable addition to the appreciation of art, especially among the aspiring masses who happened to chance upon his big newspaper display ads shrewdly negotiated at last minute rates.

Presented as his collection, the results achieved should not be regarded as a comprehensive view of the market as there were swathes of artists not represented. I could not see one work that could be described as abstract.

There were only two works by women artists, the Margarets, Olley and Preston whereas this area has been the subject of a lot of the recent excitement at other auctions. The extraordinary Preston screenprint Native Ballet 1946 (Lot 18 ) made only $6500 hammer ($7930) against the equivalent of $18,200 at Christie's in London in September 2013.

Gay artists were unusually well represented, particularly Donald Friend, but some fine examples of his early works came up recently and were not “gay” as such although the same could not be said for a small pocket of James Gleeson's works.

A pretty picture by James R Jackson, The Orange Parasol (Lot 21 ) made $16,500 ($20,130 with buyer's premium) with bidding on four phones compared with a past price of $4200 hammer or $5124 including buyer's premium. Of a similar sort of vintage Rupert Bunny's Models in the Garden (Lot 33 ) made $160,000 hammer ($195,200 including buyer's premium) against estimates of $70,000 to $90,000 and the past purchase price of $59,693.

Fred Williams Lysterfield Landscape (Lot 41 ) made $220,000 hammer against the previous sale price of $241,800  hammer, $294,996 including buyer's premium in the Peter Elliott collection only last year.

Savill's pricing of the artist Ray Crooke's work substantially replenished the artist's standing in later life but the interest in the artist in this sale suggested this may not be sustained. There was some good buying, even over the estimates but then Joshua Smith, for example, is remembered for the scandalous treatment of Sir William Dobell's portrait of him. His occasional brilliance as an artist obscured Poppies circa 1930) (Lot 54 ) sold for $14,000 hammer and $17,080 with premium against $11,000 or $13,145 making a nice decorative addition to someone's gloriasome and a change, if you have to have flowers, to the Olley Olley Olleys.

Jeffrey Smart's Study for Bus Terminal (Lot 30 ) sold for $110,000 hammer and $134,000 including buyer's premium against an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000 and the previous sale price of $122,000 with premium.

Some expected small change for Mr Savill's piggy bank came from Cable Layer, (Lot 71 ) a dark expressionist painting by Arthur Boyd which bought for $65,125 in 2005 now sold for $150,000 hammer ($183,000 with buyer's premium) but there were some soft spots in the Boyd market.

The room was more than usually full which was a surprise given that there was only one vendor and big crowds are usually made up of a lot of vendors and their friends. Room bidders were highly active but mostly had to give way to the phone and on a couple of occasions, the internet. Mr Savill sat in his usual position, somewhere in the middle of the back row but not a murmur was heard from him compared with his usual rambunctiousness.

The Kiwi's (he is still that) past rugby damage to his knees have been playing up demanding weight loss. He looked like a little boy who has had his toys taken away. But he has again filled his piggy bank full. Less than a handful of works were passed in.

Sale Referenced: The Denis Savill Collection of Australian Art, Sotheby's , Sydney, 10/05/2016

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

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