There was a surprise result was for a small work by Michael Smither, measuring 35 x 41 cm, and entitled Winter Low Cloud and Mist (Lot 17 ) selling for $22,000 This work from the late 1960's was a good example of Smither working McCahon out of his system.
By a range of various yardsticks, the recently conserved portrait of Auckland's founding father was a dark, heavy, overworked genre painting with everything in it including the family dog, but alas no kitchen sink.
The one bright spot in the work was a ''window of opportunity'' that opened out onto a classic vista of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour with Rangitoto, the 800-year-old volcano serving as a backdrop to Auckland's famous waterway.
Estimated at $300,000-500,000, and after unsuccessfully calling for bids at $200,000 but with none forthcoming, the auctioneer backtracked to $175,000 and it was then the bids started to roll in from all quarters of the room.... the old wait and see trick!
After what can only be described as a classic auction room battle did the bidding stop at a whopping $425,000. There was the classic triple whammy with Louis John Steele as the artist and Sir John Logan Campbell as the founding father figure of Auckland, plus the fact that it is a recently discovered portrait, resulting in what must be a record price for a portrait of a pakeha [European] person.
The previous highest price for a work by Louis John Steele was for The Launching of a Maori War Canoe sold by Dunbar Sloane in 2000.
In contrast, three other portraits of pakeha in the sale all tended to languish, including a portrait of (Sir) Ernest Rutherford (Lot 58 ) who famously split the atom and whose portrait adorns our highest dollar note, the red $100 bill. Painted at the height of his fame in 1925 this rare and fine portrait of one of our most internationally recognised citizens and beautifully painted by Walter A. Bowring sold for only $5,750, against a pre-sale estimate of $4,000 - $6,000... what a ''steal'' that was.
This was followed by another Steele, this a somewhat stiff portrait of a pakeha, Auckland Merchant - the Late P. Dawson (Lot 59 ). Estimated at $35,000-45,000 it failed to get a bid and was passed in at $15,000.
The difference in value between a portrait of a Maori and a pakeha is a gulf as wide as the Tasman Sea. Good Maori portraits are always in demand and last night was no exception when Time Tells - a Chieftainess of the Ngati Te Rori Te Rangi Hapu Of The Ngatiwhakane Tribe, Rotorua - Mere Werohia (Lot 41 ) by C. F. Goldie was offered. It achieved the highest price on the night, eclipsing Auckland's founding father by $15,000, selling for $440,000.
Some works from the legendary Denis Savill Collection found their way across the Tasman Sea, and one, a very fine Vera Cummings, Chief Tamarere from Tawhitinui, Whanganui River (Lot 66 ) in an original Goldie frame sold for a record price at auction for the artist, at $27,000 while the previous lot, On the Waikato (Lot 65 ) a very beautiful study of Maori on the banks of the Waikato River by the acclaimed Walter Wright of our Wright Brothers fame, sold for a meagre $7,500, one bid below the low estimate of $8,000. Now there was another steal!
I came away from that auction muttering under my breath ''god dammit, fact is certainly stranger than fiction''.
The auction was peppered with a number of other highlights and with an on the night total of around $2 million everybody at the International Art Centre including the two Johnnies would be very happy.
All sale prices quoted are hammer and expressed in $NZ.