By Peter James Smith, on 11-Aug-2017

July Flowers and Wood Warblers exploded like fireworks in the evening sky at Menzies winter auction in Melbourne on 10 August, as the 1929 flower and bird painting (lot 12) by British artist Cedric Morris netted more than $280,000 (including buyer’s premium) on a high estimate of only $12,000. That is more than 20 times the estimate! 

Morris dwelt on the artworld periphery in rural Suffolk in the 1920s, where he gardened, entertained the likes of Lucien Freud and New Zealand’s Frances Hodgkins and painted richly decorative flower studies. His works exude the fabric of the 1920s, with a naiveté and a sensual playfulness that Menzies buyers clearly found refreshing.

Ten telephone lines from all over the world battled over this modest little painting to register a new world record for Morris, establishing his credentials as ‘substance’ over ‘fashion’.

'July Flowers and Wood Warblers' exploded like fireworks in the evening sky at Menzies winter auction in Melbourne on 10 August, as the 1929 flower and bird painting (lot 12) by British artist Cedric Morris netted more than $280,000 (including buyer’s premium) on a high estimate of only $12,000. That is more than 20 times the estimate! The Menzies’ sale brought solid and accomplished results, with a 75% clearance rate on the night.

Menzies’ sale brought solid and accomplished results, with a 75% clearance rate on the night.  Australian/USA celebrity David Doyle consigned a roll call of Silicon Valley spoils that included Mountain Ash, Kallista, c1959 (Lot 18 ) and Murray flowing into Lake Alexandrina, 1980-82 (Lot 38 ) both of which may be described as iconic paintings characteristic of Fred Williams’ output.

Also consigned was the other-worldly copper wall sculpture Snake, (Lot 39 ) by Bronwyn Oliver that uncurled across an end of the auction room  for up-close and personal display during the auction. These all rightly found new homes with the hammer at the low end of the estimates in an atmosphere of restrained bidding. Restrained indeed, as these were characteristically Australian works of a type well known to the secondary market. This caution was not present when the Morris sailed to its record.

Could it be that Australia’s Grand Masters seemed staid in the presence of the Morris? Partially, but not entirely it would seem. The Doyle-owned painting Swamp, 1947 (Lot 30 ) by Sidney Nolan also sailed past its estimated range of $40,000 to $60,000 to finally settle at more than $106,000. (All quoted realisations include buyer’s premium.)  This was an iconoclastic kind of Nolan, embracing the Australian history/mythology of Eliza Fraser, with fresh verdant brushwork giving lifeblood to the forest and sand interplay that is Queensland’s Fraser Island. It is an image that is underscored by the dark clouds of menace and stands its ground before the luscious frivolity of Morris’s July Flowers.  This is a reminder that buyers want paintings that are remarkably fresh, even from the long-serving Nolan.

A perfect case of ‘remarkably fresh’ is Brett Whiteley’s Approaching Storm, 1979 (Lot 32 ). This small 50 by 40 cm gouache on cardboard depicting the rolling hills near Bathurst was knocked down at $168,000 after running a country mile over its pre-sale estimates of $60,000 to $80,000. It is an honest painting with en plein air knowledge of the environment, the thrust of hills and the impact of rain. It had also been locked up in a private collection in Canada since 1984.

Auctions need an enthusiastic audience, where buyers in the room are distracted in the bidding moment. This requires a full house that generates hubbub. Menzies certainly guaranteed that with a long lead-in time to the auction to allow social media to do its work.  At the start of the auction the room was full—but perhaps with too many observers—as much of the action seemed to unfold through the banks of telephones. It is indeed a strange phenomenon that buyers intending to spend serious money do not want to be seen at the auction but seek the anonymity of the phone line or computer mouse to bid online. Inevitably their decisions are not based on actual observation of proceedings in the auction room.

Menzies’ catalogue was symphonically crafted. The overture section covering the first few lots varied in style and period and all were sold. The first movement of the big ticket items followed, with intermezzo interludes of Contemporary works and Aboriginal paintings before a long-tailed finale of the lesser-priced.

Frederick McCubbin’s Pastoral, 1904 (Lot 42 ) graced the cover of the catalogue and characterised the big ticket items on offer. It is a fascinating work painted at the same time as NGV’s famous The Pioneer, painted at the height of his career, yet with less fastidious attention to detail. The blurred effect of the darting brushwork immediately recalls the height of Impressionism some 25 years earlier, and as the catalogue essayist points out, echoes the feathered edging of tree forms in Corot’s The Bent Tree, 1855-6, also in the NGV holdings.  Fresh from a private Melbourne collection, this masterpiece sold well at $625,000—not bad considering that it depicted sheep grazing.

Particularly interesting was the intermezzo of Contemporary works, where the auction house made careful choices to consign only works of substance even if they were not household names. It is certainly the case that lesser Contemporary works, if they are passed in, damages the artist’s primary market.  But it is a gamble, because achieving the approval of a wider audience can result in secondary market prices higher than the primary –and so help the Contemporary artist along their way. 

Particularly brilliant were:  Howard Arkley’s suburban-patterned Curlicue Console, 1998, (Lot 57 ) achieving its high estimate of $40,000; Danie Mellor’s Point of Order (New Worlds from Old Power), 2010, (Lot 58 ), a mellow glitter strewn post-colonial work, reached a new artist record of $42,000 with a bid in the room; and Giles Alexander’s Saturn Devouring his Son, 2013 (Lot 83 ), an extraordinary scientific fantasy, which also achieved a new artist record of more than $13,000.  This was the bargain of the night and a warning flag for an artist to watch. Vincent Fantauzzo’s Kimbra (The Build Up), 2012, (Lot 53 ) an Archibald finalist with an overly optimistic range of $40,000-$60,000 failed to sell.  

Legendary stalwart Tim Storrier’s serene offering Serendipity (Dance to the Music of Time) (Lot 37 ) sold well at more than $180,000, but seemed under-priced relative to the similarly-titled  work offered in Menzies first sale of 2017, which realised some $30,000 more for a smaller format. Not that price has anything to do with size!

Some fine Aboriginal works followed hot on the heels of the Contemporary works but these Aboriginal works in particular really need to be viewed as sitting among the Contemporary because they feed thoughtfully into our current understanding of the world. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Untitled (Wildflower Dreaming), 1992 (Lot 60 ) achieved a modest $40,000, but unfortunately Queenie McKenzie’s The Argyle Diamond Mine, 1998 (Lot 61 ), a vivid, compact canvas with characteristic hummocks in lights, failed to find a buyer on the night.

For all the successes in the sale, there have to be the inevitable disappointments, with the market bidding tentatively for the highest prizes where there is a lot at stake. It is unfamiliar to focus on Brett Whiteley in this category, but his The Paddock—Late Afternoon, 1979 (Lot 40 ) was referred to the vendor at a live bid of $1,400,000 (with an estimated range of $1,600,000-$2,000,000). This is a worthy canvas in exhilarating orange and burgundy swathes (ironically again depicting sheep calmly grazing). The live bid was down from the previous sale by Menzies in 2011 for $1,560,000; the house expects to shortly clinch the sale and bring the buyer and seller together.

Sale Referenced: Australian & International Fine Art, Menzies, Melbourne, 10/08/2017

About The Author

Peter James Smith is an established professional artist and writer based in Melbourne. Until his retirement from academia, he was Professor of Mathematics and Art and Head, School of Creative Media at RMIT University. He holds a Doctorate in Mathematical Modelling and three Masters Degrees in Mathematics, Statistics and Fine Art.