By Briar Williams in Auckland, on 17-Aug-2023

Auctioneer Ben Plumbly had good reason to be relaxed on the rostrum at the Important Paintings and Contemporary Art auction at Art + Object sale in Auckland on 15 August 2023. A + O had put together an excellent sale, without as many blockbuster paintings as would normally be consigned, but a very good selection of works across the board, consigned at reasonable prices. The attendance in the room was strong, with at least three of Auckland’s art consultants in attendance (always a good sign that the works are top notch).

A standout example of McCahon’s waterfall paintings (Lot 68 ) at the Important Paintings and Contemporary Art auction at Art + Object sale in Auckland on 15 August 2023, had almost all the consultants and others present in the room, engaged in the bidding. This sublime work, was the painting everyone wanted. A low estimate of $70,000 was quickly exceeded by competing phone bidders who took it all the way to $153,000, setting a record for a small work (40.7 x 33.2 cm) by the artist.

I always feel for the auctioneer when I see them hand their phone off to a staff member during the sale. If their phone is ringing during the auction, it’s not a good sign. Usually it’s a disgruntled client, calling to complain their phone bid was missed or the internet bidding was shut off too quickly. It’s always an unpleasant conversation to have after the sale, because at that point, there’s not much you can do it fix it.

When this happened early on in the sale,  auctioneer Ben Plumbly dealt with it all in good humour – ‘I’ll deal with it later’ he quipped, ‘I’ll look forward to that conversation’…, said with all the confidence of an auctioneer who knows they have a good auction ahead of them.

While blockbuster paintings are great for headlines, it’s the more fickle middle section of the market that you want to remain strong when times are tough. There are always buyers for good, top end examples, it’s the bracket between $10,000-$100,000 that will most often suffer in a softer market but this time round, Art + Object shone in this area.

Two private collections provided a great base for the sale, the Fairfield Trust collection from Wellington provided a glimpse into a collector’s motivations and mindset in the 1990s. Another collection, belonging to top New Zealand sculptor Chris Booth, comprised mostly of paintings he swapped with artist Ralph Hotere for two sculptures in the early 1980s.

The Fairfield Trust Collection got the sale off to a great start with early lots selling well, including a glazed ceramic by painter Tony Fomison, Head, about 1981 (Lot 1 ) which was well contested by those in the know, and realised $3,000 against a $1,500 low estimate.

A significant early painting by Bill Hammond, was lotted early on in the sale. It was a risky move to put Songbook (Lot 10 ), at lot 10, but it paid off with two consultants going head to head for the work in the room. This painting had last been sold at Webb’s in 1995 for just $7,000 but these early works by Hammond are becoming more sought after, especially one such as this which came with an excellent provenance. The low estimate of $130,000 was well exceeded by dealer John Gow, on the phone for a client, who paid $160,000 hammer.

Early McCahon landscapes are appealing to collectors, rare items that they are, being painted in the late 1930s which McCahon was around 20 years old. View from Mrs Neame’s Old House at Mahau (Lot 29 ) had a stellar provenance, belonging to artist Toss Wollaston, before entering the Fairfield Trust. Although unsigned, the work came with a handwritten letter by Woollaston documenting the history of the painting. There were at least three active bidders for the work, who took it to $54,000 against a low estimate of $40,000.

Moving out of the Fairfield Trust collection, two very interesting items sat side by side in the catalogue. The exceedingly rare items, were the timber masks, both dating from the early 1950s made by Arnold Manaaki Wilson and Molly Macalister. During the viewing, I wished that previous AASD correspondent John Perry was still alive, I’m sure he would have had lots of interesting information to pass on as these types of works were right up his alley. The first mask by was Arnold Manaaki Wilson (Lot 44 ), a well known artist and educator and one of the foremost artists within the Maori Modernist movement who fused traditional Maori forms with a contemporary perspective. There is companion piece to this geometric mask in the Auckland Art Gallery collection but only seven works by Wilson have ever come to auction. It was no surprise to anyone, that the work sold for $42,000 against the low estimate of $25,000.

The second mask, was by sculptor Molly Macalister, (Lot 45 ) friend of McCahon and supremely important for the development of sculpture as a medium in New Zealand. Only a handful of works by the artist had appeared at auction and this piece had a great provenance being passed down the artist’s family. Fitting neatly with the form of the Wilson mask, it was serendipitous that these two pieces appeared on the market at the same time and place. The Macalister mask sold on the low estimate of $30,000 and took the second highest price for the artist at auction

A group of works by Ralph Hotere owned by the artist Chris Booth had mixed results with some of the best examples within the group failing to sell on the night but other examples well exceeding their estimates. Hotere had exchanged 7 pieces – both paintings and works on paper for sculptures installed on his property in Aramoana in Dunedin in the early 80s and most of the paintings dated from the same time. The highest price of the consignment went to Mungo (Lot 61 ) which doubled its low estimate to sell for $90,000. Another work, Sketch for a Black Window (Lot 60 ) slickly re-represented in a black tray frame was well contested to make $70,000 against a $25,000 reserve. By comparison, a beautifully realised work on paper Drawing for a Black Window (Lot 58 ), which was both subtle and dramatic, was hammered subject at $11,500 against a $16,000 reserve. The sales of the Hotere works consigned by Booth realised a total of $310,000.

One of the strongest current growth areas in the market is for works by women artists especially if they are modernists. Louise Henderson is an artist that has received much interest and recognition in the last years, ticking both these boxes. A painting in this sale Still Life (Lot 62 ) had the sense of a work of decades earlier despite it being executed in the last years of her life in 1987 when she was 85. Prolific bidding ensured a good result, selling for $36,000 against a low estimate of $25,000.

Gretchen Albrecht, a senior artist is finally seeing the interest and recognition for her work on the secondary market, catching up with her primary market. Results over the last few years have really increased and a huge hemisphere painting Plume (Red) (Lot 74 ) in striking blue and red landed just shy of its top estimate at $70,000.

Despite the fervent interest in Bill Hammond’s works earlier in the sale, the headline lot of the auction didn’t quite engage the buyers in the same way. Despite being a fantastic example by the artist and an easy domestic scale, compared to some of his larger bird paintings, Hokey Pokey 3 (Lot 70 ) had a very slow start, with Ben Plumbly having to execute not one but two vendor bids at $375,000 and $400,000 to get it going. The work eventually sold to John Gow on the phone at the low end estimate of $500,000. One wonders if the result may have been different if the painting was in the more traditional green palette rather than gold.

By comparison, a standout example of McCahon’s waterfall paintings (Lot 68 ), had almost all the consultants and others present in the room, engaged in the bidding. This sublime work, so refined, so elegant, the pinnacle of this famous series was the painting everyone wanted. A low estimate of $75,000 was quickly exceeded by competing phone bidders who took it all the way to $153,000, setting a record for a small work by the artist. I believe this result will be hard to top in the future.

It was an excellent result for Art + Object who sent out their post sales release quite quickly after the sale announcing a total of $3,591,833 including buyer’s premium. This is their highest total for the year to date, and even more impressive when most of that total was from the sale of  works of $150,000 or less. The clearance rate by lot was 75%.

Sale Referenced:

About The Author

Briar Williams is an Art Valuer and Auctioneer who has worked in the primary and secondary markets of New Zealand and Australia for over 15 years. In Melbourne she managed a commercial gallery and was a valuer at Leonard Joel Auctioneers & Valuers before becoming Head of Art there in 2009. Most recently, she was the manager of the art department at Mossgreen-Webb's in Auckland and currently works as an art writer and consultant.