By Terry Ingram, on 11-Jun-2015

The late Alan Bond gave art collecting in Australia a bad name and he did it in the 1980s with other people's money. The one time London East Ender enjoyed the unearned profile as the world’s most important art collector in the roaring 1980s but his interest had more to do with money and being accepted in polite society - perhaps even at the court of St James's - than with connoisseurship.

Bond appeared a handful of times in New York based ARTnews' top 200 art collectors list and was one of only a handful of Australians ever to do so.

In the late 1980s the late Alan Bond enjoyed the unearned profile as the world’s most important art collector, but his interest had more to do with money and being accepted in polite society. He acquired his profile through the purchase of Van Gogh’s Irises for $US53.9 million in 1987. Bond appeared a handful of times in New York based ARTnews' top 200 art collectors list and was one of only a handful of Australians ever to do so.

Yet he rarely had much if any equity in any of the art he had in his collection and famously intimated that his ambition was to buy the most valuable painting to come onto the world art market.

He acquired his profile through the purchase of Van Gogh’s Irises for $US53.9 million in 1987 after unsuccessfully attempting to buy one of the same artist’s Sunflowers which made $US39.9 million.

He was soon knocked off his perch when Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, the artist’s doctor made $US82.5 million but his name was to be raised over and over as it had been speculatively before, for his art market manoeuvres.

Sotheby's lent him half the money to buy Irises and the transaction momentarily reinforced confidence in Bond as a businessman and in the global art market which had held its ground despite doubts about the strength of world financial markets.

Bond “owned” Irises for a very short time and it is now in the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It toured Australian art galleries with other French Impressionists in his collection although a curious rumour never entirely rebutted arose that the picture that toured was only a copy. Insurance would have been prohibitive.

Irises was sold by Sotheby's to the Getty for an undisclosed account when Bond failed to complete his "hire purchase” agreement.

Bond added little to Australia’s treasury of material culture that would not have come here or stayed, such as Australian historical items like presentation pieces and memorabilia. His enthusiasm however may have unlocked many objects which were in private hands which might have taken time to dislodge.

While his buying in the Australiana market made life difficult for serious collectors and public institutions, they were able to rectify these missed opportunities when his Dallhold collection was sold in 1992 by Christie’s, many lots at substantial discounts on what he had paid for them.

One, surely a national heritage item, John Webber’s Portrait of Captain Cook which he held privately, should have obtained an export permit rather than taking a peculiar voyage to landlocked Switzerland surfacing after his affairs had been settled, to be sold the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra for $1.5 million.

Commissioning purchases through (Lady) Angela Neville, god daughter to the Queen, Bond was not seen in the saleroom when his big purchases were made but Neville, with a gallery in Mayfair, a stone's throw from the court of St James's had been identified as his agent in market gossip that proved to be well founded.

As a former East End sign writer Bond had some affection for the brush and he was able to pursue his practical interest in art later when he was jailed in relation to his handling of the Renoir chez d’ouevre, La Promenade.

While securing top quality works Bond acquired paintings and artefacts from a market that was about to change significantly and he contributed to that change markedly.

Beginning with works by Norman Lindsay Bond’s buying had shaped the market in Australian art of both the colonial and |Impressionist period, buying the works of the colonials when the market was gaining confidence that Australiana would rise in value ahead of the 1988 Bicentennial of Australian settlement.

As usually happens with such events, the market subsided when the actual event arrived. He had put money into the creation of a replica of the Endeavour and his interest in maritime achievement was reflected in purchases of the portrait of Cook and of Matthew Flinders for prices well above expectations.

He established a new record for any piece of Australian art when he gave $1 million plus for Rupert Bunny’s La Nuite de Canicule at Joel’s in Melbourne in 1982. (It subsequently burnt in a warehouse fire.)

Interest in the past faded when people discovered what a mess had been made of it and Australia had ‘the recession it had to have’.

Bond had bought art, like so many businessmen such as the de Medici family, for their own glory but now art, particularly the big pink, blue and gold paintings in richly gilded frames, gave off a bad odour created by their failure, often through misdemeanours, of business enterprises.

Bond made a leading contribution to these changes accelerating its pace.

Shareholders were now looking hard at the money locked up in corporate or "boardroom" pictures and dealers and auctioneers had little difficulty in persuading companies to sell, especially the long held collections which still showed a profit.

New art consultants invited them to continue buying – but the work of young emerging artists where there might just be a profit at the end of the tunnel - rather than dead ones where quality and freshness was in increasingly short supply.

For the price of the sale of just one big old canvas, directors could cover all the walls of their offices and be seen to be encouraging young talent more in keeping with their enterprises.

Wall spaces could be covered quickly with new media such as digital imagery and photography especially as there were now not so many of them - walls that is. The new work environment was of interiors bereft of all but supporting walls.

This was both in keeping with the new minimalism in interior design as well as the anxiety of the executive directors and management to ensure its staff was not shirking but pounding the phones for new business.

Looking at art on walls was again a diversion called day dreaming and best done at home with the payees own funds from the exercise of highly attractive options.

The winding down of Bond’s affairs resulted in some harsh financial reappraisals of its dead artists reinforced by the views of British art critics who enjoy putting the foot into Australian art. Conrad Martens for instance was said to be an overpriced colonial would-be J M W Turner.

The dispersals created great opportunities eagerly seized by Australian institutions who had long eluded them because of the likes of Bond.

The big competitive streak which had inspired WA entrepreneurs to participate in world art markets did not recur during the mining boom now on its last legs.

It is no wonder.

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