As Menzies South Yarra rooms filled with an eager audience of bargain-seeker buyers and observer thrill-seekers for the first sale of 2017, a cool change passed through Melbourne dropping the temperature from thirty-seven degrees to a more manageable twenty- five; this reprieve may have brought bidding comfort to the assembled, but as the bidding progressed, the room was often out-gunned by the massive bank of telephone bidders. Savvy and keen, the phones usually fought amongst themselves, save the occasional online interjection from the internet. This pressure from the phones accounted for the strong clearance rate on the night. Tim Abdallah was the star phone performer: extracting bids, suitably noisy so as to be overheard, yet quietly soothing bidder nerves. Auctioneer Martin Farrah jibing that ‘Tim was always on the bidders’ side’. The audience warmed to all of this with rounds of applause, for this was Tim’s last sale with Menzies as Head of Australian Art after more than a decade-and-a-half as mainstay writer, researcher and authority on secondary market value, as he takes leave in Germany. He will be missed by us all.
And so to prices at the business end. 2017 is now well underway and the signs appear good. However it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security as Menzies catalogue had been finely tuned like a racing engine all summer, with market fresh offerings at all levels and modest flexible reserves, so that the catalogue could fire on all cylinders. They focused on sales. The paintings were shown off in both Melbourne and Sydney to entice buyers into the market. The recipe for realisations above the quoted catalogue range requires both the aspects of scarcity and desirability to be in play.
The catalogue fired up at the outset with a magical late-career Tom Roberts oil on board, Eaglehawk Neck, 1925 (Lot 15 ). It breezed fresh into the market, after a lifetime in the estate of Elizabeth May Russell. Even though it was modest in scale, modest in subject matter, and painted at the wrong end of his career, it seemed to gleam with a fresh light and a sense of honed natural observation by the artist. It realised $93,750 including buyer’s premium over an estimated hammer range of $35,000-$40,000. This is good for Roberts’ fans. This middle ground proved fertile all night long. Buyers have not tired of John Kelly’s renditions of William Dobell’s cow sculpture artifice: Kelly’s Blowin in the Wind (II), 1997, (lot25) fetched $75,000 over pre-sale estimates of $30,000-$40,000. Other contemporaries also fared well: Bronwyn Oliver’s Clasp, 2006, (Lot 34 ), a trademark copper work constructed late in her desperately short career, realised $262,500, more than $100,000 above its top estimate. Oliver’s unique vision of crafted biomorphic forms led her to create works with a sinewy presence with wall-mounted structures that are simultaneously muscular and fragile. Tim Storrier has always had a visual language that resonates with the Australian public. His landscapes speak of the Australian wilderness with a sublime rendering of the real and the unreal. In a given work, these two states are intertwined, with a nod to science and a nod to poetry. My pick of his works in this sale is the large-scale Serendipity (Lot 41 ) where a train of elegant roses hover in an eternal figure-of-eight, balanced at one end by moonlight and at the other end by burning paper debris. As Crosby Stills Nash and Young sang at Woodstock: ‘We are stardust, we are golden / We are billion year old carbon / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden’. This is superbly painted oil on a surprisingly coarse grade canvas. It proved a steal at $225,000, just exceeding its top estimate of $200,000.
The carefully observed works of Cressida Campbell remain enormously popular. She supports a keen eye for detail with graphic fluency. Her watercolour/woodblock image Gum Leaves, detail, 2000 (Lot 101 ) deservedly fetched a handsome $30,000 hammer over $6,000-$9,000 estimates.
All night the artist records flowed to audience applause. Particularly noticeable was George Gittoes’ The Beast, 2011-2016, (Lot 42 ), a finalist in last year’s Sir John Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. At a massive 2 metres by 2.7 metres it overtakes the viewer with a manifold uneasy presence like a churning crucible of the War Artist experience. As a painting it set a new record for George Gittoes at $125,000 over pre-sale estimates of $60,000-$80,000.
Louise Hearman usually paints oils on sequentially numbered small wooden panels. Her jewel-like handling of light is as quixotic as mercury. This skill in paint handling showed off superbly in Untitled #1325, 2010 (Lot 111 ) which was fiercely contested on the phones for $20,000 against presale estimates of $9,000-$12,000 which were levels that previously represented her market.
For all these successes in the sale, there were the inevitable disappointments, with the market appearing softer above the $500,000 mark. The expansive Fred Williams Australian Landscape, 1969, (Lot 39 )—that graced the cover of the catalogue, that brandished an impeccable provenance, that fully demonstrated his refined aesthetic—failed to attract bids over $500,000 and remained unsold on the night. The same fate awaited a remarkable Jeffrey Smart painting Pylon, 2006, (Lot 38 ). This large scale work showed his usual careful pictorial construction, yet allowed for the play of light across a graffitied façade to comment on the lives of the figures at the centre of the composition. Pylon is blue chip Smart and with a reasonable low estimate of $550,000 will likely find a buyer.
Finally it remains to comment on the presence of Brett Whiteley across the sale. His skill was represented at all levels: from the sale-darling Lavender Bay painting Westerly with Daisies (View of Lavender Bay), 1974, (Lot 33 ) to the delicious Blue Nude 4 (Lot 87 ) and Blue Nude 5 (Lot 88 ), his sensibility of line is remarkable. For around $12,000 the nude inks-on-paper have the ability to physically stir the imagination with effortless yet awkward lines that do great justice to all that is human about form. The Lavender Bay image is tranquil, introspective and quietly maudlin. Here the wandering lines are full of cross-cultural echoes. It was an obvious steal at $875,000.