By Peter James Smith, on 05-May-2023

At Deutscher and Hackett’s sale of ‘Important Australian and International Fine Art’, the golden glow of Russell Drysdale’s outback study Children Dancing, 1950, (Lot 12 ) embraced the Midas touch and turned to actual gold, selling for a hammer price of $1,650,000 on $1,300,000-$1,600,000 estimates. The reality of this painting is more dire. It brilliantly shows the resilience of Australian life in the outback; for all the harshness and empty silence, the painting conjures music only from the long-hoped-for-beats of the arms of a windmill echoed in the rhythm of the dancing children. The golden light of the painting belies the challenges of a harsh life in a landscape devoid of water.

At Deutscher and Hackett’s sale of ‘Important Australian and International Fine Art’, the golden glow of Russell Drysdale’s outback study Children Dancing, 1950, (Lot 12 ) embraced the Midas touch and turned to actual gold, selling for a hammer price of $1,650,000 on $1,300,000-$1,600,000 estimates. The final price exceeds the magic $2,000,000 with buyer’s premium. This was the second highest hammer price for a Drysdale.

The final price, settled after exchanging bids blow by blow between a stay-away telephone bidder and a very present and very calm room bidder exceeds the magic $2,000,000 with buyer’s premium. This was the second highest hammer price for a Drysdale. The previous equal records of $2,400,000 hammer were set both by Deutscher and Hackett in 2020 for the canvas, Going to the Pictures, 1941, and by Mossgreen in 2017 for Grandma’s Sunday Walk, 1972. Clearly, Drysdales of this calibre, fresh to the market, only arrive on the market after a settling pause—in this case a three-year cycle. The astute buyer needs to be ready when one actually arrives.

Even with the shivering start to a Melbourne winter, the sale attracted a full room of patrons with many punters taking a privileged position standing at the back of the room. This writer observed at least one serious bidder rise from his seat and stand and successfully bid from the back from where he could track and out-bid the opposition, before returning to seated comfort with a knowing win. The return to the room post-covid follows trends in retail where people crave for an ‘experience’ when they spend money. The successful internet bidders (and there were many of them) probably savoured the emotional detachment, although it is very easy to bid with the click of a mouse beyond self-imposed financial limits and later suffer buyer’s remorse.

The sale began with a daring beckon to the sculpture court, with the first two offerings being by the interesting modernist female sculptor Margel Hinder (1906-1995) whose work we should know more about. Unfortunately, Woman, 1938, (Lot 1 ) did not attract a bid, perhaps because of its primitivist rather than modernist feel, even though it could boast provenance from the collection of the late Robert Klippel. On the other hand, her striking Maquette (Adelaide Telecommunications Building), 1971, (Lot 2 ) created a dramatic auction record for the artist, selling to the phone for $150,000 pretty well double the pre-sale estimate $65,000-$85,000 and tidily up on its previous market outing at Christies in 2006 when it achieved a then record of $35,000. The market will be waiting for more of her work.

The next two lots almost summarised the fortunes of the entire sale. Brett Whiteley’s rare and desirable painted bronze Pelican I, 1983 (Lot 4 ), from an edition of 9, sailed to $540,000, well above it’s top estimate of $450,000, while the more subtle canvas Harbour in the Rain, 1977 (Lot 5 ) with implied arabesques more akin to Whiteley’s oeuvre, failed to attract an opening bid, on a $400,000 lower estimate. Even though it was new to the secondary market, it’s look was not. Lots that have the twin qualities of desirable and rare do not seem to show signs of post-covid neglect, at a time of economic fragility when clearance rates have definitely started to slip.

The market does not seem to have gone into overdrive after the recent sad death of John Olsen. All four lots offered were sold. The three selling at or above the top of their estimated range were: the adventurous Wattle Pollen Time, 1974 (Lot 6 ) which realised $160,000; Tidal Estuary, 1993 (Lot 18 ), where the ever-popular watercolour subject encouraged strong book bidding with a final winning phone bid of $140,000; and the smaller inward-looking watercolour Landscape with Blackboys, Broome, 1999 (Lot 37 ) which settle out at $50,000. The large-scale oil The Bath, 1996 (Lot 7 ), full of painted marks to die for, sold for $280,000 at the bottom of its estimated range. It should have fetched more.

The next segment of the sale had mixed results. Faring well, were a small Albert Tucker Self Portrait, 1948 (Lot 14 ). Painted on cardboard (no fancy materials post-war), it had a grinding Picasso-esque feel to it. But, bidding was competitive with a hammer price of $50,000 on a $30,000-$40,000 estimate. Arthur Boyd’s Wimmera Landscape with Dam and White Cockatoo, c1958 (Lot 16 ) and Rosalie Gascoigne’s Sheep Weather Alert, 1992-3, (Lot 20 ) were perhaps not iconic enough and remained unsold on the night.

For some time it has been difficult for buyers to get their hands on a coloured woodblock print by Cressida Campbell in the primary market, when potential buyers may be ranked and vetted by dealers. But the auction market is open to access. So, her very strong Bronte Interior, 2003 (Lot 23 ) was chased by undercover internet bidders, falling finally to a room bidder for $240,000 on conservative $140,000 - $180,000 estimates. Her market is red hot, given that this work was previously sold for a hammer of $85,000 at Menzies some seven years ago. It is therefore unfair to assess the current estimate $140,000 - $180,000 as conservative; who could say where the estimated range should now sit.

We can contrast this with the market for Banksy, which appears to have met its maker. Girl with a Balloon, 2004 (Lot 24 ) a screenprint of edition 71/150, signed and dated, did not attract a bid on $450,000 - $650,000 estimates. Our auctioneer quipped: ‘We should have shredded it’, as the porters carried it from the room.  (It is the same image as the unique Banksy that was so famously shredded moments after it sold at Sothebys for $2 million in 2018 and re-sold in shredded form for $25.4 million in 2021 after nine bidders battled for 10 minutes.)

In the contemporary section, a magnificent Peter Booth oil, Painting (Snow Scene -Grey Tree), 2006 (Lot 25 ) was a steal at $24,000 at the low end of its estimated range. While Ben Quilty’s muscle car spectacular Want, Want, Want, 2006 (Lot 26 ) did not elicit a bid even near the low estimate of $120,000.  A much later, much much smaller, much more deftly assembled Quilty—The Otter, 2019 (Lot 28 ) fared better—selling for a hammer of $50,000, eclipsing its estimated range $28,000 - $36,000.

There is increased demand across the board for the contemporary-looking modernist Guy Grey-Smith who hailed from Western Australia and taught us of its nature.  Karri Forest II, c1976 (Lot 39 ) exudes an intimate confidence that can completely own a wall, with its luscious panes of heightened colour reminiscent of Hans Hoffman’s European School. After very competitive bidding it reached $95,000 on $65,000-$85,000 estimates. A new and well-deserved auction record for the artist.

The sale total was $6,091,700 ($7,476,177 including buyer's premium), with 95% of the lots sold by value, and 82% sold by number.


All prices quoted are hammer prices and do not include the buyer’s premium.

Sale Referenced:

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.