Signalling a possible new twist in the Australian art market, three of the four artists who helped save Bonhams' from a wipe-out of its Important Australian Art sale on November 25 were dead artists.
Two of the four, in past market parlance might be called “dug-ups.” That is, artists overlooked by time but celebrated in their day. They were very popular in the 1980s when stock was running short.
Another artist, Tim Storrier, however is very much alive providing $390,400 towards the $2.1 million total with a new artist auction record for The Fall (Incendiary Detritus) (Lot 11 ) which very comfortably eclipsed its estimate of $180,000 to $240,000
The revivals are Herbert Badham with $256,200 paid by Sydney art consultant David Hulme on the phone for On the Roof (Lot 9 ), estimated at $100,000 to $150,000 and Ethel Spowers, seven of whose works made a total of $349,530.
The hammer price of $230,000 for the Streeton was comfortably within the estimates, which exclude buyers premium, of $200,000 to $300,000.
Storrier and all the deceased have been in an uptrend, with Badham (1899-1961) and Spowers (1890-1947) the focus of a re-examination of the Interwar years and post Impressionism and Streeton benefiting from his exclusion this year from the artists resale royalty by virtue of him dying 70 years ago.
These helped offset the failure of many recent and more contemporary artists to sell with the major disappointment being Brett Whiteley's big orange painting Sloping up on the Olgas, (Lot 28 ) for which $700,000 to $900,000 was expected.
But their placement at the beginning of the catalogue suggests some astute pre-sale intuition of what was going to happen.
What cataloguers failed to foresee was the difficulty of selling tribal artefacts in an art sale, however good they can look together.
Bonhams littered the catalogue with these previously commercial Aboriginal items that might set the sale on fire. Very few of these lots sold and the simultaneous but logical ploy of hiving some of the lesser traditional pieces into the decorative arts sale in the afternoon did little for either sale.
The match for the smouldering sale was struck by the Badham and the Storrier which coincidentally were both odes to the fire. The Storrier showed an abandoned barbecue and the Badham women smoking.
Badham, best known when he died as an art writer, came back to life at the Grundy sale in June this year when Travellers painted in 1933 made $732,000.
Although he had to pay more than the estimate, the buyer Mr David Hume should therefore not be too disappointed with the cost of a purchase. Such boldly painted works of the period are now rare to the market, especially by this artist. His buy On the Roof was painted in 1928.
Bonhams Australia chairman Mr Mark Fraser appeared understandably a little disappointed by the 50 per cent clearance (54 out of 119 lots sold) in this evening sale, but added “It is November after all.”
End-of- year mixed vendor sales traditionally have been the thinnest of the thrice yearly auctions. He said that the firm's accounting practice required him to bind the sale together with the auction of the Clive Evatt bark collection on November 24 to give a total including buyers premium of just over $3 million.
Nerves must have been frayed by 7.30 pm with barely 50 people in the room and all the front three rows of chairs empty.
But the presence of eight staffers on phones at the side table was re-assuring to any vendors who were present. For much of the auction the battle was between the phones and or Internet and this was where the majority of sales went to.
In the thin crowd the eight or so really serious buyers stood out when in crowded rooms their presence might have gone undetected by the public.
All but one of the Spowers were purchased by phone bidders and that one buy was a nursery linocut, The Bee (lot 5) which made $9760.
This compared with The Gust of Wind (Lot 3 ) at $103,700 (estimate $15,000 to $20,000) an oil which gained value from its association with the celebrated print of that subject (the artist's best known image) and The Skaters (Lot 4 ) at $91,500 (estimate $20,000 to $30,000).
These were estimated at the same price as two Spowers art deco prints which made $30,500 and $67,100.
Bonhams and its vendor should be jolly happy that oils, for which Spowers is not famous, should sell better that the prints for which she is not.
Her work is currently on a roll due to the international interest in the Grosvenor School of which the Australian born was a leading member. The school introduced modernity into the vocabulary of 1920s and 1930s wall hangs.
The Spowers, which a Bonhams specialist uncovered with a descendant of the artist in Alice Springs, were a major coup as was the Storrier which about doubled its mid estimate. The cover illustration of a book on Storrier it may well be his chef d'ouevre.
Storrier was about to discover saddlebag montages in the 1980s and continued to be inventive and greatly increase his craft as a painter since.
While it might be hard to take home a Whiteley with a real birds nest in it for a big price, a Storrier painting of a snake and burning meet in a camp fire would look good on a white wall above a leather couch.
The record setting work is thought to have cost the vendor about half the amount paid in 2001 when it was painted but appeared in two different galleries shows before it sold.
Bonhams had modest success with lower priced contemporaries some flown from London for the sale.
But the big surprises were for paintings of the traditional school even if they did not return fully to 1980s price levels. Works by Hans Heysen and Elioth Gruner fired, Mr Justin Miller purchasing one of the Sydney Harbour with Fort Denison for (Lot 8 ), estimate $8000 to $12,000)
The title of a James Gleeson, A Time of Uncertainty (Lot 31 ) which made the lower estimate of $30,000 appears to summarise where the market is at, but buyers seemed to know exactly what they wanted. Unfortunately for all it was the same lots.
At Bonhams sale of fine furniture and decorative arts earlier in the day works by J. C. Hoyte and Norman Lindsay, and a wartime sketchbook failed to take off but one item of Australiana was very keenly contested by a telephone bidder who secured it and a buyer in the room.
This was a watch and testimonials relating to South Australian explorer John Stuart. It made $70,000 hammer against estimates of $40,000 to $60,000. The room bidder was Kym Cheek, marketing manager for History SA, and the winning phone bidder has been confirmed as the National Museum of Australia.