The auction was a quasi-retrospective of Nolan’s oeuvre. The collection spanned five decades of prodigious work and covered almost every area of interest which moved Nolan. Later images of St Kilda, recalling his childhood were hung alongside his native floral studies. The numerous images of creatures, inter alia, lions, monkeys, swans and elephants, were indicative of Nolan’s love for animalia throughout his long career. Bottlebrush, c.1970 (Lot 14 ) sold for over double the high estimate at $5,500. Lot 3, Birds, c.1982 which sold for $8,000, was a delicate and graceful portrait of two pink birds (possibly galahs) recalling the fine early works of scientific explorers, The Sydney Bird Painter and the Port Jackson Painter.
Nolan’s love for travel was clear from this cross-section of work. Scenes from Africa were the most abundant. Lot 44, Elephant with Baby, 1963 going to the room for $30,000. Chinese Landscape, c1980 (Lot 71 ), related to a number of important works of the River Kwai series, sold for $12,500. The following lot, New Guinea, 1984, a study of the luscious green jungle of the PNG’s Highlands, went to the telephones for $8,500. European tourist spots were also favoured painting haunts for Nolan; his Rome, c1957, depicting the Forum Romano with the Colosseum on the horizon, sold for $14,000.
Also evidenced in this body of work was Nolan’s tremendous ability to draw from, absorb and reinterpret influences in ancient cultures, his contemporary associates and literary sources. Rite of Spring (Dancers), 1962 (Lot 21 ) sold for $6,500, reveals Nolan’s anthropological interest in tribal customs and body paint designs; Nolan’s Rimbaud in Africa, c.1963 (Lot 35 ) makes a direct personal connection to the French poet. The work sold for $10,000 – one of the very few to sell below low estimate. Lot 83, Figure in Armour, c1957, sold for $45,000, was probably painted to show Nolan’s allegiance with Picasso more than any reference to Ned Kelly.
The demand for any work that references, even remotely, Ned Kelly was clear. The appeal of the bushranger was not limited to earlier works or those in oils; nor were prices dependent on size or quality. The first on the subject to go under the hammer was Armour and Landsape (Kelly), 1956 (Lot 11 ). Painted in 1956, the oil was also one the earliest painted works on offer and sold for the high estimate of $80,000 to the room. The appetite for the helmeted outlaw was evidenced when Kelly and Policeman, c. 1962 (Lot 32 ), a small unsigned work on paper, sold for $18,000 – more than double the high estimate. The result made the following lot seem rather cheap. Lot 33, Kelly, 1964, a large, signed and impressive oil went to the telephones for $100,000. Another small, unsigned, oil on paper, Kelly on Horseback, c.1962 (Lot 95 ) went to the telephones for a remarkable $42,000 – more than five times more than the high estimate. The final Kelly for the evening, the final work of the auction, and symbolically, Sidney Nolan’s last painting, Shot (Kelly) c1991 (Lot 119 ), was met with spirited bidding and finally went to the phones for $145,000 – the top price for the evening.
Other notable works included the series of portraits of Adelaide women from the racing carnivals, all selling at or above low estimates. Portraits of Gallipoli soldiers, also sold well with Galipolli Soldier, 1977 (Lot 60 ) going to the room for $45,000, clearing easily the high estimate. The cover image, Head (Lot 57 ) sold at high estimate of $70,000.
As well as the high turnout, the evening was remarkable for its high number of internet bids received. At times, auctioneer Mark Fraser, was given a break by his assistant who was in charge of the internet console, calling bids from multiple online bidders. Internet bidder 5095 was the top client of the evening, having purchased almost twenty lots on the evening. Interestingly, a number of important secondary market dealers of Nolan pictures were absent on the evening.
When Sotheby’s in New York recently offered over 10,000 lots of works by Andy Warhol, many believed that it would flood the market and that many lots would either not sell or that we would see a general downward trend following the auction. The sceptics were proven wrong when the auction was a success, with no apparent change in average prices for Warhol. The same can be said in regard to the work of Sidney Nolan. This was not the first time Nolan’s Estate has offloaded a large number of works at a single auction and each and every time, the hoard of studio works draw in large crowds, eager to own a piece of Australian art history.
All prices are hammer, excluding premium.
Total hammer, $1,920,300
Total lots sold, 116, (2 unsold, 1 withdrawn)
98% sold by volume
128% by value