By Peter James Smith, on 17-Aug-2023

Competitive bidding on valuable paintings fresh to the market heralded an exciting night for Deutscher and Hackett’s sale of Important Australian and International Fine Art in Melbourne on 16 August, 2023. Outside, the evening temperature hit record lows. Inside, as the room filled, there were few winter blues and the mood lifted.

The strong pre-sale interest in John Peter Russell’s Souvenir de Belle-Île (Lot 23 ) was indicative of  an exciting night for Deutscher & Hackett’s sale of Important Australian and International Fine Art in Melbourne on 16 August, 2023. The auction house had been confident the pre-sale estimate of $1,500,000 - $2,500,000 would be exceeded. When the hammer fell at $3,200,000it it set not only an auction record for the artist—but also a record for an impressionist painting at auction in Australia.

The ‘improbable’ sea of blues and violets in John Peter Russell’s Souvenir de Belle-Île (Lot 23 ) flashed like an opal under moonlight and then entered the record books—not only an auction record for the artist at a hammer price of $3,200,000—but also a record for an impressionist painting at auction in Australia. There was such strong pre-sale interest in the work that the auction house had been confident the pre-sale estimate of $1,500,000 - $2,500,000 would be exceeded. The bidding opened at $1,000,000 and moved quickly with at least three telephone bidders and two room bidders competing. It was reputedly Monet who called the sea of colours in Russell’s painting ‘improbable’. Forget digital photographs. When viewed in person, the physical presence of the painting is simply electric. The auction catalogue shows a photograph of the artist painting his wife Marianne en plein air, leading a pair of goats along the clifftop at their island home on Belle-Île. The dappled effect is earthy, yet at the same time, other-worldly. This is Impressionism at its finest.

As inflation bites on the coat-tails of the pandemic, it was heartening to see a large audience choose to bid on great art rather than watch the Matildas bid for further glory in the World Cup semifinal – both have imperatives to be experienced live. Both audiences were chasing an uplift.

Right from the outset, the progress of the auction was engrossing. The first four lots were major pieces—like the astonishing tips of an iceberg hinting at further holdings—from the Joan and Peter Clemenger Collection. Brett Whiteley’s South Coast after the Rain, 1984, (Lot 1 ), the 1984 Winner of the Wynne Prize, began the auction with a withering internet bid of $1,500,000 against estimates of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. That is an internet bid, not a book bid left with the auctioneer. A telephone bidder responded until the internet bidder secured the work with a final hammer price of $1,800,000. Very decisive bidding. The painting was certainly a Whiteley-collaged masterpiece with the addition of white droplets of oil paint applied to a Perspex overlay, so that they cast rain-like shadows on the actual surface of the painting beneath.

The second Clemenger lot, an enticingly lyrical Landscape with Creek Bed, 1976-7 (Lot 2 ) by Fred Williams sold for its lower estimate at $800,000 with a single knock-out bid from the internet. Then, to stunned silence, a John Brack nude (Lot 3 ), and Sidney Nolan’s effortlessly dapper Escaped Convict, 1948 (Lot 4 ) failed to raise a bid and were unsold on the night. Neither seemed expensive, so sales are likely to ensue.

The auctioneer then segued to a group of 17 lots from the Krongold Collection, a period collection formed by the late Henry Krongold that had remained in the family by descent. This writer suddenly realised that by the time we had reached lot 10, the phone bidders had been curiously silent, with most pieces being acquired either by the internet or the room. Notable here was Sidney Nolan’s magnificent Ned Kelly piece Early Morning Township, 1955 (Lot 9 ) with estimated range $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. Four room bidders fought over this iconic image containing the black helmeted Kelly on horseback, the victor paying $2,200,000 at the fall of the hammer. Similarly, Fred Williams’ Cootamundra Wattles, 1975, (Lot 11 ) reached $540,000 well above the top $480,000 estimate. But smaller works that lacked a contemporary punch, such as John Perceval’s Landscape with Sheep, 1958 (Lot 12 ), or Frederick McCubbin’s Edge of the Clearing, (Lot 16 )—even with provenance from the famous Trout Collection in 1989—failed to find a buyer.

That ‘contemporary punch’ is a very curious thing. It can amount to what recent generations want for their walls, and it can be influenced by the zeitgeist politics of the day, and it may not be what their parents wanted. So, for example, Del Kathryn Barton’s Of Pink Planets, 2014 (Lot 33 ), after a battle between the telephones and the internet, the internet won out to the tune of $430,000 and a milestone new record for the artist. This goddess image seems to disrupt the so-called male gaze and radiates a sense of calm female strength that is at one with the world.

Also with a contemporary punch was the beautiful array of Albert Namatjira watercolours on offer. They are very relevant at a time when the country is voting in a referendum on ‘The Voice’. It does not seem long ago that Namatjira’s could be acquired for under $30,000. That is certainly no longer the case. The graphically brilliant Palm Valley, 1940s (Lot 22 ) from the Krongold Collection didn’t break a record but it did reach a comfortable $72,000 with a canny room bidder, on $45,000 - $55,000 estimates. Just exceeding this, in the last lot of the sale, Ghost Gums, Macdonnell Ranges, c1950s (Lot 67 ) unsurprisingly fell under the hammer for $75,000 on $30,000 -$40,000 estimates.

A record was also set for Bruce Armstrong’s pair of editioned bronze maquettes, Guardians, 2009-21 (Lot 49 ) at $220,000. These aquiline pillars could well guard any modern entrance, with their mainstays gracing the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne. Jon Molvig’s Sleeping Aboriginal Woman and Child, 1958 (Lot 41 ), a painting that glows from the heart of Australia, achieved his second-highest record at $100,000.

Deutscher and Hackett are exceedingly good at offering quirky, interesting works at a range of price points. Tommy McRae’s pair of silhouetted pen and ink drawings Ceremony and Spearing Fish and Black Swan, c1880, (Lot 36 ), sailed past their top estimate of $70,000 to reach $160,000 when the hammer fell after strong bidding from the room. What beauties.

At the other end of the scale, and similarly quirky, Irish immigrant Daniel Clarke was an artist who made hauntingly beautiful naïve paintings that seem forever mysterious. His Tower Hill, Warrnambool, 1867 (Lot 66 ) featuring featuring contrasting figures on opposite sides of the canvas, was a bargain at $9,000. His work is undervalued by its own mysteriousness. Also, in this category we find Colin McCahon’s Floodgate I, 1964-5 (Lot 25 ), a follow-up on his famous Gate series, featuring blackened barriers to spiritual strength. However, this example, that has been hidden from view in the collection of Rosalie Gascoigne, remained unsold on the night with a low estimate of $180,000. There are a lot of McCahons in the market and good ones such as this do not remain unsold for long.

The sale total was $12,581,500 ($15,440,932 including buyer's premium), with 116% sold by value, and 82% 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.