By Peter James Smith, on 22-Nov-2023

Sidney Nolan’s enamel on composition board painting, Desert Bird 1948 (lot14) vivid yet modestly scaled, was completely new to the market. It was a pleasure seeing this work at the Melbourne viewing, as the spectacular paint surface caught my eye—such sensual paint details are completely lost in a digital or photographic version of it. Of course, the startled demeanour of the hovering bird is where the social power of the painting lies, as a reminder of the continuing difficulty we experience in coming to terms with the Australian environment and its histories. The hammer price of $1,300,000 was the 5th highest price for a Nolan. All the historically higher priced works were images of the helmeted Ned Kelly. Perhaps the bird may be seen as a Ned Kelly helmet after all.

Sidney Nolan’s Desert Bird 1948 (lot14) flew to new heights, selling for a hammer price of $1,300,000 to a persistent room bidder at Smith and Singer’s ‘Important Australian Art’ final sale of the year in Sydney on 21 November 2023.

Also presented for the first time at auction was Nolan’s unsettling image The Town 1948 (Lot 9 ). It reached $400,000 mid-range after heavy telephone bidding. Unsettling—again—as it showed the tension between European Australians and the environment they sought to control. A brilliant painting.

Smith and Singer offered a tightly curated range of paintings across the art-historical span: from impressionism, art nouveau, tonalism, 1950s social realism, 1960s op art, contemporary art and the current accent on realism. In these inflationary times when economic prosperity is difficult for governments to guarantee, there is a sense that art buyers naturally head towards more conservative and ‘safe’ purchases. This was my experience at the October Frieze Artfair in London and perhaps there was a changing of the guard at the suite of auctions that accompanied it; for example, Christies London Evening Sale successfully placed a painting by the new art star from the Caribbean, Alvaro Barrington as lot No1. So, fashion is important, but so is safe blue-chip grunt. Basquiat still sells for millions.

Back to the current round of Sydney auctions and there was plenty of dependable blue chip in the Smith and Singer catalogue. Howard Arkley’s Shadow Factories 1991 (Lot 12 ) was an imposing presence. This brilliantly-composed industrial image sold mid-range at $850,000 achieving his 5th-highest realisation, beaten only by the patterned domestic suburban interiors that he is famous for. His industrial paintings are rare and sought out by the market: the last Shadow Factory of comparable size from 1989 sold at Deutscher and Hackett in 2014 for a mere $140,000. They are clearly worth a great deal more now.

Some of the current crop of new realist painters, feeling quite at home in both the primary and the secondary markets, fared well even in the current economic climate. There is a certain sanctity in well-composed still life. Cressida Campbell’s incised woodblock Wheat Fronds and Sky 2016 (Lot 8 ) settled in at $210,000, changing little from its realisation of $190,000 achieved by Smith and Singer as recently as three years ago.  Similarly, Criss Canning did not disappoint with her The Deco Tray 2020 (Lot 1 ) selling on command at $48,000, and Late Summer 2008 (Lot 33 ) reaching $55,000. Meanwhile while her plein air landscape, Brachina Gorge, Flinders Ranges 1983 (Lot 51 ), fresh and honest, was stolen from under the hammer for $8,000! True to form, in a battle between the internet and a rusted-on room bidder, John Kelly’s signature-styled Cow Up a Tree 2020 (Lot 27 ) sailed 25% above its top estimate to reach $200,000, his second highest auction price for a painting.

There were high hopes (especially from this writer) for the three—yes three—Rosalie Gascoignes on offer. Both Fragmentation 1991 (Lot 6 ) and Orchard 1986 (Lot 13 ) were passed on the night, but the more rhythmical Grasslands 1987 (Lot 22 ), fresh from the collection of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, sold for $500,000 at the lower end of its estimated range. The demand should have well exceeded the supply.

Portraiture has a well-established art-historical arc in Australia, perhaps due to the popular annual presentation of the Archibald Prize. Charles Blackman’s cover lot, Girl with Flowers 1958 (Lot 17 ) reached well above its estimated range to sell for a cool $1,000,000. This work captured a momentary gesture. Capturing a deeper presence was Russell Drysdale’s superb Half-Caste Girl 1961 (Lot 15 ). The title of the work now seems horribly anachronistic, and it was set with extremely humble estimates of $200,000 - $300,000. One lucky telephone bidder seized it for a mere $180,000. After all, this was its 8th appearance at auction, having previously achieved $360,000 at Menzies in 2014, while its first outing was at the pedigree Mertz sale in 2000.

There were, however, some new artist records in the Smith and Singer sale. Nicholas Harding’s Eddy Avenue (2) 2002 (Lot 32 ), a large impasto oil on board sold for $60,000 almost doubling its presale estimates of $25,000 - $35,000 and almost doubling his previous record of $34,000 set last year. This artist’s keenly-observed expressive paintings have a very bright future. Similarly, Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski’s very graphic op art painted collage Rado 1965 (Lot 59 ) reached $18,000, equalling his previous record; one to watch out for. Max Meldrum (Lot 44 ) also equalled his previous record of $60,000 for a darkly luminous 1908 painting of a French bell tower with daylight falling. If Caravaggio had painted landscapes they would have been illumined by Meldrum’s marvellous kind of darkness. 

Three small paintings by Clarice Beckett (one of Meldrum’s protégé’s), even after her widely-regarded shows at the Geelong Gallery in 2023 and the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2021, had mixed results. The locally Melbourne Beaumaris works Half Moon Bay (Lot 34 ) and Ricketts Point (Lot 34 ) were passed in on low estimates of $30,000 and $40,000 respectively. Hardly expensive. The c1931 oil on board, Misty Day (Lot 36 ), containing a little more figuration, reached its low estimate of $35,000. It is amazing how little she puts in her paintings, yet the restless edges to her seamless forms still make us yearn for Port Phillip Bay.


All prices quoted are hammer prices and do not include the buyer’s premium. On the night the sale achieved 73% by number of lots sold. Final sale results will be added when they become available..

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.