By Peter James Smith, on 30-Mar-2023

Three small Jeffrey Smart paintings, quirky, yet true to form, confirmed their blue-chip status at Menzies first sale of the year. The carefully composed Study for the Petrol Station, 1975, (Lot 15 ) with its loadings of art historical and social comment saw at least three battling telephone bidders push the hammer to $170,000 eclipsing $80,000-$120,000 pre-sale estimates. The larger Smart, Bus by the Tiber, 1977-8, (Lot 18 ) sold comfortably at $520,000 in the middle of its estimated range. It is clear that although Smart painted with ostensibly Italian imagery, his paintings speak quietly to Australian audiences with his canny placement of figures in isolated and alienating spaces. They make us look again at the urban world that we inhabit—a world in constant transition—both social and environmental.

Three small Jeffrey Smart paintings in the sale confirmed the blue-chip status of the artist at Menzies first sale of the year, with the larger Smart, 'Bus by the Tiber', 1977-8, (above) selling comfortably at $520,000, in the middle of its estimated range.


It has been more than a year since Menzies offered their auction at South Yarra to a Melbourne audience, as during the intervening pandemic many sales were based at Kensington in Sydney. With extensive pre-sale viewing at both locations, and the offering of a free transit bus to Sydney (for purchased works, not auction bidders) any Sydney/Melbourne rivalry was quietly put to bed. After all, with a bench of 12 telephone stations running the length of the auction room, and a seemingly unstoppable internet connection, punters could bid from anywhere. Following a family tradition, Cameron Menzies surveyed the auction from the Chairman’s Desk at the back of the room.

There is a sense that the secondary market peaked during covid. But Menzies seem to have held the line with excellent clearances as the market finds its true levels post-covid. The auction began smoothly with carefully curated pieces. A delightfully cropped Cressida Campbell woodblock, Gumnuts and Hyacinths, 1990, (Lot 4 ) called the bank of telephones to action. Campbells at auction present an excellent opportunity to purchase on the open market, when the primary market is covered off with sell-out shows. This smallish work settled comfortably mid estimated range with a hammer price of $60,000. Later, the more dramatic Campbell, Chrysanthemums, 1984, (Lot 35 ) realised $90,000 after a run of 20 bids toppling the low pre-sale estimates $30,000-$50,000.

Then, to a favourite, the incomparable Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, who painted in demanding colours with synthetic polymer paint on linen. Her transcendent  Dibirdibi Country, 2006, (Lot 7 ) went to a lucky buyer for only $22,000. Equally vivid, My Country, 2009, (Lot 8 ) achieved a similar figure of $20,000. These prices are double those recorded by Menzies in their February 2020 auction for works on a similar scale. These are not artist records, but her prices are in their infancy.

Another artist on the move is Reko Rennie. His Bora, 2010 (Lot 10 ) was subject to fierce bidding from the phones and the internet, finally reaching a new record for the artist at $40,000 on humble estimates of $12,000-$18,000. As I wrote regarding a Menzies auction of another Rennie from his kangaroo series in February 2020 which then reached a hammer price of only $13,000: ‘This is an image of a full-frontal red kangaroo as a proud Australian filling a 2.45 metre canvas that would appear to simultaneously scrape the floor and ceiling of any upmarket Sydney apartment. Rennie is a contemporary aboriginal painter utilising vivid colour and bold designs and is doing well internationally, so the secondary market will not have seen the last of his work.’ Indeed.

Sometimes it requires only one lucky and timely bid to secure a work. A rare and graphic oil by West Australian Guy Grey-Smith, Horse and Jockey, 1970, (Lot 11 ) sold at $40,000 at the bottom of its range with a single internet bid. Again graphic, and very large, the 4.27-metre-long John Coburn White Bird, c1974, (Lot 13 ) found a new home at $150,000 at the base of its estimated range.

The wonderful selection of lots from the Eva Breuer estate (lots 25-49) began quietly, but when gems were offered, bidding was feverish. The brilliantly painted Gallipoli General, c1959, (Lot 28 ) reached $84.000 well above its estimated range $55,000-$75,000. This is Sidney Nolan at his best, entreating histories with zen-like brush marks to die for.

William Robinson’s images are always popular. True to form, Farm II, 1982, topped its $200,000-$300,000 to fall to a room bidder for $330,000 after heavy competition with the telephones. It’s always worth being in the room in person!

Melbourne audiences always start to pay attention when a Mirka Mora is offered: Bouquet for Love, 1987, (Lot 43 ), featuring beads, thread, silk, ink and tempera on linen doubled its top estimate to sell at $14,000. This pint-sized work, loaded with deep cultural expression and the usual array of doll and flower images, is rendered painstakingly in needlework (over an agonising amount of time I might add).

Then to the piece-de-resistance of the Breuer offerings: Julie Rrap’s Gradiva/Gravida – Philosophies of the Boudoir, 1985-6, (Lot 45 ). With humble $10,000-$15,000 estimates, the double-panelled canvas finally fell to the telephones for $19,000 with a determined underbidder in the room disappointed in defeat. This is a record for a painting by the highly fancied contemporary artist, although her record for a photographic image stands at $35,000.

Strategically placed throughout the auction were major works from The Balnaves Collection, Sydney. This included a work by Cornelia Parker, one of the UK’s hottest contemporary artists, fresh from a retrospective in 2022 at the Tate Britain and a 2019/2020 presentation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Right/Wrong, 2019, (Lot 50 ) features needlework texts created by UK prison inmates learning how to do double-sided embroidery on linen. This conceptually binding work reached a comfortable $20,000 on $20,000-$30,000 estimates and set a new Australian record for the artist.

Also setting a new artist record was Tony Clark’s well-known Sections from Clark’s Myriorama, 2010, (Lot 90 ). This large work composed in a grid of 24 canvas boards reached $32,000, doubling his previous record. The much-undervalued Jan Senbergs’ work Venice, 2007-8, (Lot 98 ), which held court behind the auctioneer during the auction, also brought a record for the artist at $34,000. This is extraordinary considering that 318 Senbergs works have been sold on the secondary market in Australia during the artist’s career; now, finally, a record. Other notable artist records were for Robert Hunter’s white-on-white Untitled #7, 2002, (Lot 92 ) at $48,000 and Neil Frazer’s Overhang, 2011, (Lot 95 ) at $26,000.

The headlines really belong to those mid-career/ late-career/senior artists appearing in the market with new auction records:  Jan Senbergs, Tony Clark, Julie Rrap, Neil Frazer and Robert Hunter among others. In this auction these secondary market seeds have been sown by the brilliant collecting instincts of the late art dealer Eva Breuer, and works from The Balnaves Collection, Sydney. Menzies are to be congratulated for bringing these artists to the secondary market with such strong realisations.

On the night the sale achieved 89% sold by lot and 105% by value, for a total of $5.81 million (IBP).

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About The Author

Peter James Smith was born at Paparoa, Northland, New Zealand. He is a visual artist and writer living and working in Melbourne, Australia. He holds degrees: BSc (Hons), MSc, (Auckland); MS (Rutgers); PhD (Western Australia), and MFA (RMIT University). He held the position of Professor of Mathematics and Art and Head of the School of Creative Media at RMIT University in Melbourne until his retirement in 2009. He is widely published as a statistician including in such journals as Biometrika, Annals of Statistics and Lifetime Data Analysis. His research monograph ‘Analysis of Failure and Survival Data’ was published by Chapman & Hall in 2002. As a visual artist he has held more than 70 solo exhibitions and 100 group exhibitions in New Zealand, Australia and internationally. In 2009 he was the Antarctic New Zealand Visiting Artist Fellow. His work is widely held in private, university and public collections both locally and internationally. He is currently represented by Milford Galleries, Queenstown and Dunedin; Orexart, Auckland and Bett Gallery, Hobart. As an essayist & researcher, he has written for Menzies Art Brands, Melbourne & Sydney; Ballarat International Photo Bienniale, Ballarat; Lawson Menzies Auction House, Sydney; Art+Object, Auckland, NZ; Deutscher & Hackett, Melbourne; Australian Art Sales Digest, Melbourne. As a collector, his single owner collection ‘The Peter James Smith Collection– All Possible Worlds’ was auctioned by Art+Object in Auckland in 2018.