By Terry Ingram, on 02-Apr-2015

Against frenetic bidding at a Sotheby's Australia auction in Melbourne's Grand Hyatt Hotel on March 31, Museum Victoria outbid private buyers to secure choice lots from a selection of objects that had been collected by the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, which given the strength of the local and global bidding in the room could have gone to overseas buyers.

With the help of the Australian Government Cultural Heritage Account the museum purchased seven lots.

This gold presentation paperweight was presented to Dame Nellie Melba by the citizens of Geelong after a concert she had given in aid of Kitchener Memorial Hospital in 1922, which raised £7012 from ticket sales. Estimated at $40,000 to $50,000 it made $134,000 at the sale of 162 lots from Coombe Cottage, Dame Nellie's Melbourne home on March 31. It is among several lots sold to the Museum of Victoria so it will not be saying farewell to Melbourne, only to Lilydale, writes Terry Ingram.

The Australian Government Cultural Heritage Account was established to ensure that public money was available to secure objects under threat of export, in the same way that overseas, particularly in the UK, funds are made available when overseas buying threatens exports of historic objects.

In the UK, however, the objects usually have to be provisionally purchased by an overseas entity, and then a local institution registers its interest in securing them. In the UK, the institution then has to raise funds to pay a matching price.

The Museum's action this week effectively gazumped any such moves and given reports of the bidding this course of action might have been very necessary. Sotheby's reported the frenetic bidding of the evening included would-be buyers from overseas.

The purchases will be welcome by the older set in particular although there cannot be too many people around now who had personal contact with the diva (she died in 1931) despite the many farewell performances for which she was famous. Too often museums appear to lash out on current or very recent popular culture such as Harry Potter and Star Wars, both in its buying and museum programs.

The buying of associational objects also appears to have been moved to the back burner in favour of spending on the high-tech and digitally visual, and the grey set fret that museums are not interested in objects at all.

Few offerings like this, however, have challenged the seemingly new priorities. The objects were from a catalogue of offerings by Coombe Cottage near Lilydale Victoria which is where Melba lived when in Australia.

The cottage is over-flowing with the often gold or silver nick-nacks with which Melba was presented as a result of her many performances.

These are believed to have been augmented recently with some of the contents of her Paris apartment which was offered for sale.

The seven lots purchased by Museum Victoria are topped by an ornate gold paperweight depicting Australian flora and fauna engraved with the initial 'M' which was presented to Dame Nellie in recognition of her fund raising efforts including a concert for Geelong's Kichener Memorial Hospital in August 1922.

The other purchases were an Edwardian sterling silver cigar box by William Comyns, London 1901, with the inscription To Papa from Nellie 1902 and a George V silver gilt bow made in Birmingham in 1910 inscribed Won by Madame Melba Belgium Rose Day April 8 1915.

Other items include a pair of paste celluloid hair pins, a 9 carat gold pencil made by Sampson Mordan and Co. London 1920 inscribed Dame Nellie Melba, and a sterling silver tray inscribed Music Week Nov 5-13 1921 Dame Nellie Melba DBE in appreciation from the committee.

Museum Victoria CEO Dr Patrick Greene said the acquisitions would now enable the museum to expand its Melba display in the Melbourne branch of the Museum, which is located on the outskirts of the CBD.

Melba's place as a national cultural icon and her deep connections to Melbourne and Victoria ensured that he representation in the Museum Victoria's collection was of high importance, he said.

The museum's senior curator Migration and Cultural Diversity, Dr Moya McFadzean said the objects related to her role as a national and international performer, as well as hinting at her life as a private citizen.

They also demonstrated the status that Melba had in Australia particularly in her home town and how she used this to advance causes close to her heart, including musical appreciation and participating in charitable fund raising.

The museum had to fight for the paperweight outlaying $134,200 IBP against estimates of $40,000 to $50,000.

The museum and public buying was more restrained when it came to lots without her 'M' monogram or did not relate to an occasion like a presentation.

Dame Nellie would have been delighted with the museum's interest although saddened to see the more limited interest shown elsewhere in some of the traditional artists she supported in her day. She was a great supporter of the antique trade as well as budding talent although some of the secondary artists of the day she supported are not in vogue any more.

 Although an obvious victim of the tariffs, she fought for removal of import duty on antiques and was partly responsible for this being effected in 1929 just before the onset of the Great Depression changed all tax and tariff priorities.  

 She opened numerous art exhibitions, often buying works on the occasion.

Duties and sales taxes were to become a major obstacle to Australia building up a rich decorative arts heritage in subsequent years.

Despite the museum's purchases, numerous very desirable pieces of memorabilia escaped local institutional buying.

But there was buying in all reaches of the market even if at $6100, an enamel diamond and seed pearl hatpin circa 1910 seemed expensive against estimates of $600 to $800.

The purchase of a rare paste and celluloid hair pin cost $854 which was within the estimates of $500 to $800 as estimates do not include the buyers premium.

The silver bowl estimated at $400 to $500 cost the museum $6710 and a cigar box $6710 against an estimate of $1000 to $1500.

While lesser artists of her day did not quite share in the fervour of the sale, the pictorial highlight, a Streeton made $189,100 against an estimate of $40,000 to $50,000.

Sotheby's Australia's success in the decorative arts on this occasion must be the envy of other auction houses especially as it follows the disbandment of most of its decorative arts department – but it was obviously a very special sale.

The 162 lot Melba sale grossed $1.98 million IBP against estimates of $548,880 to $746,370.

The decorative arts highlight was a Cartier rock crystal enamel and diamond set desk clock which went to an unidentified buyer – surely international? - for $244,000 against the estimate of $20,000 to $25,000.

It is not the first time Melba memorabilia has raised Beatlemania type excitement at an auction.

The sale of the contents of her house in London's West End in November 1925 was widely reported.

The furniture alone fetched £6000. It comprised mirrors, chandeliers, and clocks, and was mostly French antiques of the Louis XIV, XV, and XVI periods, and some old English Queen Anne pieces.

The Australian Press Association reported that the sale had been very satisfactory. There had been “a large attendance of the public, spirited competition had resulted, and the prices, in many instances, had been remarkably high - undoubtedly due to a sentimental value Dame Melba's possessions.

“The sale bad also benefited by large purchases in behalf of the incoming tenant. A number of purchases were made in behalf of Viscount Jellicoe and Lady Oranmore, the latter of whom is one of Dame Melba's oldest friends and admirers in London."

Dame Nellie's grand daughter,  Lady Vestey lived at Coombe Cottage and while the Vestey's have been selling their vast stamp collection including George V Australian stamps, this is believed to be entirely unrelated to the Sotheby's sale

About The Author

Terry Ingram inaugurated the weekly Saleroom column for the Australian Financial Review in 1969 and continued writing it for nearly 40 years, contributing over 7,000 articles. His scoops include the Whitlam Government's purchase of Blue Poles in 1973 and repeated fake scandals (from contemporary art to antique silver) and auction finds. He has closely followed the international art, collectors and antique markets to this day. Terry has also written two books on the subjects