By Terry Ingram, on 12-May-2017

The art trade has little to fear from the increasing torrent of consignments from seniors down-sizing, if the response to the to the auction of Australian and International Fine Art and Sculpture at the Menzies Gallery in Sydney on May 11 is any guide.

Downsizing has added a new D to the lexicon of Ds driving the art market (death, debt and divorce). The sale grossed $7,099,282 IBP which was a respectable 84 per cent sold by value and 87 per cent by volume.

The response to the 136 lot offering of wall-demanding large paintings and space clogging sculpture resulted in a more than satisfactory return, if a wee bit short of what was hoped for.

Menzies auction of Australian and International Fine Art and Sculpture in Sydney on May 11 proved few surprises but was still in many respects a curtain lifter. Small to medium sized paintings which were well provenanced, require less space and make a critical statement such as Margaret Preston's 'The Green Curtains' (above) look like holding their own in the down-sizing for which the auction provided a green light as the population ages and moves on from the large family home.

This was encouraging as the offering was arguably more of a real auction due to its diversity, than the two well curated auctions earlier in the week. It was not monopolised at the upper levels by a small group of individuals with deep pockets keen to secure trophy paintings teased out of selected vendors. It also took place after those auctions had lightened their wallets.

The chief executive officer Mr Justin Turner conceded that the new "d" had become as important as the others "d's" in the lexicon. The sale also came too soon for the response, if any are to eventuate, to the modest inducements introduced in the Budget for seniors to take up a little less space in the world.

Although  Mr Rodney Menzies,proprietor of the Menzies group,  has bought several major international pieces over the years which he introduced into his Australian sales to broaden the variety of the offerings, his sales, like most art sales in Australia largely comprise Australian works.

This sale featured its usual handful of these works plus a larger than normal variety of large and small sculptures. There was also a number of fresh-to-the market traditional works most of which found their mark. This was helped by their move forward to the front of the catalogue.

Still far from price-demanding, James R Jackson's The Ramble (Lot 4 ) easily topped its $6000 to $9000 estimate selling for $32,000 ($39,273 with premium) while the next lot, Elioth Gruner's A Summer's Day (Lot 5 ) made what appeared to be its reserve of $19,000 ($23,318 IBP) against estimates of $20,000 to $30,000. In both, hints of sunlight sneaked through the bushes, a reminder on a cold night that summer was over. Ladies taking a stroll in the sunshine have been fair game in the saleroom for some time.

It is not unknown for a traditional artist to come out of the woodwork and make such a price – in 2000 at the sale of the Hattersley collection by Tim Goodman, a B E Minns sold for an off-the-planet price of an entirely unexpected $87,385 and a surge in "Jimmy" Jackson's prices in the mid 1930s was a pointer to recovery from the Great Depression.

The star lot about which Menzies was able to stir considerable press excitement did not sell under the hammer although bidding was taken to $260,000. The estimate on the work, a youthful Charles Conder's The Fortune of War (Lot 45 ) was estimated to make the very wide berth between $280,000 to $380,000. However, no one has been able to work out for sure what the subject was.

The excitement over the picture which had consumed certain members of the press, appears to be the academic's fascination with four splashes of red paint representing bandanas tied to their waste and worn as head gear. Conder, who loved giving his paintings of the time arcane titles drawn from literature, left us with no notion of the painting's meaning.

The academics relate it to That Fatal Colour showing a lady with a red umbrella jousting with a bull but any Freudian similar undertones of The Fortunes of War, which shows two men dragging a dead body across a beach, are far from clear.

A Eureka moment is called for and the scholar to make it with this picture it could it very rewarded - it might add thousands of dollars to the value of the work

Red did not overly excite buying interest in the Conder, but green coaxed a comfortably successful bid of $75,000 ($92,045 IBP) against estimates of $55,000 to $70,000 for Margaret Preston's The Green Curtain, (Lot 24 ) a circa 1918 work and one of her finest.

Buyers tucked into Charles Blackman's Sweet Shop of 1954 (Lot 26 ) and it went out in a few licks at $110,000 hammer, $10,000 more than the top estimate and $135,000 IBP A little girl in the centre of the picture looking in, was created with a squashed blob of red paint. Darrell Lee learned long ago that red sold well in its sweet shops.

Women artists were well represented and well received in the sale. Nora Heysen's Interior with Josephine, London 1934 (Lot 23 ) made $75,000 ($92,045 IBP) against estimates of $50,000 to $70,000. Works in the lower middle range, including two by Margaret Olley also fired.

Harder to place, as in reality, were the sculptures and it was sad to see the overseas examples mostly struggling, the Lynn Chadwick excepted. His pair of bronzes, Maquette II and Jubilee III (Lot 33 ) sold for $170,000 ($208,636 IBP)

Tete de la Vierge (Lot 20 ) a bronze by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle was passed in without bids being taken (estimate $26,000 to $35,000) but it was from an edition of 10 and done eight years after the sculptor died, something which does not worry curators but arguably should.

The market does not appear to miss the now retired dealer Denis Savill as shown by an Arthur Boyd, Bride and Bridegroom with Rainbow (Lot 48 ) which made $500,000 ($623,616 IBP) compared with estimates of $450,000 to $650,000. The price was paid despite the obscure brooding source of the series which comes out strongly in the work. Like several other works in the sale the painting had a long saleroom history, the latest being its purchase for $540,000 hammer three years ago

Buyers were shopping for carpets as well as curtains so the cover lot, John Brack's Nude in Profile (Lot 50 ) a whopping 1.3 metres tall showing a nude woman walking on the edge of a Persian rug sold for $340,000 ($417,273 IBP), $29,000 above the low estimate and $40,000 below the high.

Arthur Streeton's South Head Sydney (Lot 44 ) was clearly pronounced sold at $300,000 ($368,182 IBP) which was $40,000 above the top estimate. It had once belonged to Sir Leon and Lady Peggy Trout, doyens of the Queensland art world in the 1980s. The lapis lazuli seemed rather bright and I would be surprised if any fish could swim in it.

Tim Storrier's Gran Impedimenta (Lot 34 ) number 1 of an edition of 5 sold, for the top estimate of $200,000 ($245,455 IBP). Mr Menzies said that he is keen to have more artists consigning their work direct to his sales, a convention which was established briefly in Australia when the 1930s Great Depression rolled in. It did not work well, due to the meandering nature of art at auction, and was discontinued.

Frederick McCubbin's Spring Morning (Lot 46 ) which made $736,000 in 2015 and $515,454 in 2014 sold for $500,000 hammer or $613,636 IBP. It was a placid work with little else than a very distant gardener pottering around. This was the most highly priced work in the sale.

Russell Drysdale's Half Caste Woman (Lot 49 ) had similarly bounced around in price on previous trips to the same saleroom. This time it made $300,000 hammer ($368,182 IBP). It also had a fine provenance, being once in the collection of Harold R Mertz from which it was sold by Christie's in 2000.

All seats were taken at the beginning of the sale and many people stayed late. Telephone bidders accounted for much of the sale so it was rarely possible to button-hole buyers.

Sale Referenced: Australian & International Fine Art , Menzies, Sydney, 11/05/2017

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