By Terry Ingram, on 01-Sep-2016

Sir Arthur Streeton's super-sized oil on canvas Sydney Harbour (lot 31) sold for $2.07 million at Sotheby’s Australia’s auction in Sydney on August 31 confirming the artist’s status as Australia's ultimate blue chip artist.

Underling the strength of interest in trophy paintings at a time of high cash liquidity, the painting made the price without the buyer’s house even being in it. That at least was the raison d’etre for its last high.

The successful bidder, art consultant David Hulme, at least was able to concede this information but obviously could not add any more except to say that following the sale the painting was now still out there in private ownership. This, of course is excellent news for the art trade. It will come round again and could then conceivably be bought by a public art museum as curators like to make big splashes too.

Sir Arthur Streeton's super-sized oil on canvas Sydney Harbour (lot 31) sold for $2.07 million at Sotheby's Australia's auction in Sydney on August 31 confirming the artist's status as Australia's ultimate blue chip artist. The sale total was $8,965,170 or with 75;36 per cent sold by lot and 132.05 per cent by value. Only 17 of the 69 lots offered were unsold.

The odds on this, however are unlikely due to the continuing rise in trophy-seeking millionaires, not to say billionaires, as the gap between the richest members of society and the poorest continues widening. They have to have something to spend their money on and this picture has great wall power.

Some of the richest will be living in Darling Point from which the same view right across the harbour from Cremorne. A batch of home units at just a little less than the price of the painting went on sale there last year.

Not only is the painting’s market among people who live in that suburb but as the previous accepted title Sydney Harbour Across Cremorne, people resident north of the harbour are also interested.

The previous owner told the writer at the last sale, that he bought the work because his house was in the painting. I wrote down Meiklejohn in my catalogue at that time but have been unable to confirm any connection with the family that has thrown up distinguished members of a predominantly Melbourne banking clan.

The man who told me this at the last sale this did not appear to be around this time to see it sold. But then every seat at the Intercontinental Hotel saleroom was taken and the same reliable button-holing of attendees impossible.

Equally, there was no clarity as to the ultimate buyer this time and his or her interest in the 61 x 120 cm painting. The buyer’s house for instance might not have been there but they might be owners of a house with a view of the same spot. The interest may also have been spurred by a love of the artist’s workmanship alone.

Peter Moran of the Moran Health Care family which has an ownership interest in the old mansion Swifts across the harbour was at the sale, but said that the price was well in excess of his expectations.

The estimates were $1.5 million to $2 million. While the hammer price which is all that the estimates take into account was within this at $1.7 million the painting last changed hands at Christie’s in August 1999 for $420,000 hammer or $464,500 with premium.

The painting has a distinguished prior ownership, most notably Thomas Barr Elder Smith and before that Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, the anthropologist patron of Streeton and great collector from the turn of the 19th/20th century. Spencer bought it directly from the artist for 75 guineas. Sotheby’s has accessed documentation that suggests Spencer bought it from the Baldwin Spencer auction for 500 guineas but ambiguous saleroom reporting of the day make it unclear whether it was bought at the sale. Exhibitions and auctions were more extended affairs in those days.

Price lists of some auctions are nowadays compiled well after the event rather than at it, and sales negotiated later then included. It helps boost turnover which is jealously buoyed and guarded by the auction houses. This time Sotheby’s had them ready first thing the following morning. And with results like these who would not?

The sale should boost the shareholders’ bid to retain the franchise which is coming up for renewal soon.

The sale total was $8,965,170 or with 75;36 per cent sold by lot and 132.05 per cent by value. Only 17 of the 69 lots offered were unsold.

The response to other Streetons in the sale confirmed the artist’s stability over more than 100 years, helped both by the recent long term loan of a sea view Streeton by the Dalbora Marinas sailing family to the National Gallery in London, the first such placement there of a work by an Australian artist, usuals and peripherals like Charles Conder possibly excluded and, if anything, more Tate-like.

Sydney Harbour, however, could have been bought by a sailing enthusiast like the Dalboras, as it includes one of the first appearances of a maxi-yacht.

The yacht at the left hand of the painting seems to be unusually large.

Melbourne colonial artist Henry Gritten occasionally had trouble with a tram in a picture. The tram looks too big.

Kosciusko real estate is appreciating rapidly if the price achieved for the other magnificent Streeton in the sale is anything to go by.

Sold for $750,000 hammer or $915,000 with premium the equally sizable The Murray and the Mountain (Lot 27 ), the bidding began with eight telephone bidders waiting for the start. Done in 1930 it was from the supposedly later dull period of Streeton. But the work had great depth to it which suggests Streeton was duller in mid career where unanticipated wealth was accumulating from dashing out pot boilers.

Sydney dealer Mr Denis Savill who is in the throes of downsizing through Menzies, bought at least two paintings early in the sale. They were the outlandishly tinselled Son of the Sun (Lot 4 ) by Brett Whiteley for which he gave $360,000 hammer ($439,200 with premium) for which $140,000 to $180,000 was expected and Herbert Badham’s Boatshed Sydney (Lot 2 ) for $20,000 ($24,400 including premium.)

A shameless familiar bark of “knock it down” from the back row when auctioneer Martin Gallon trawled around for other bids suggested that the dealer is finding it difficult retiring as planned but as expected.

“I have just bought a big house,” Mr Savill reminded us. The chic Whiteley was another painting with great wall power.

Howard Arkley’s Mod Style,(lot 39) a typically fluorescent interior of his sold at $535,000 ($646.600 with premium) and inside a different kind of house to those painted by Streeton set a new auction record. Arkley has had a difficult run lately due to a change in fashion and whispers of fakes sitting around threatening to send him to the Culture Bin. This work had the best of provenances being exhibited initially at Melbourne’s Tolarno Gallery. The previous record was $463,600 for Large House with Fence in 2014.

David Hulme’s other major purchase was The Robin and the Moon (Lot 8 ) by Brett Whiteley at $900,000 (estimate $600,000 $800,000) which had been last bought by Eva Breuer at a Stanley & Co auction, the prices from which did not make the records. How far the art market has come in its love of birds since the Cayleys whose work is now looking very brown-painterly. With premium the price topped the $1 million to make $1,098,000.

Four pages were devoted to the Whiteley in the catalogue and three illustrations. The same generous space allocation was visible elsewhere in the catalogue (despite copyright fees) which shows just how far auction marketing has come in 50 years when three works per page with one or two of them illustrated would have sufficed.

The work which showed the biggest percentage rise in a genre was possibly for women artists, A Lassie (lot 24), painted in 1888 by Emma Minnie Boyd at the height of the 1880s boom sold for $140,000 ($170,800 with premium) against estimates of $30,000 to $50,000. The artist’s previous record was $10,800 for The Quail at Sotheby’s. The genre, of course, is women’s art which at this price is well below the ceiling.

Women dealers’ and collectors’ bidding were not so observably successful. (Lady) Angela Nevill was there from London and was not seen to stir. Laurraine Diggins battled hard for Charles Blackman’s schoolgirl Tryst which was hammered at well over the $240,000 at which the bidding started but within the $200,000 to $300,000 estimate. Namatjira’s, Finke River Mission and Mount Hermannsburg (Lot 21 ) made its top estimate, the much hoped for $100,000 on the basis of size and extraordinary application by the artist of detail. It was also a historically important work.


Sale Referenced: Important Australian Art, Sotheby's , Sydney, 31/08/2016

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