By Terry Ingram, on 25-Nov-2015

Sotheby's Australia retained its reputation for creating the appearance of very real live auctions in Sydney at its sale of Important Australian Art on 24 November.

The sale, which grossed $8.55 million, with 67 per cent sold by volume and 112 per cent sold by value, was greatly helped by collectors or their agents who came out and bid freely.

Sotheby's Australia retained its reputation for creating very real live auctions in Sydney at its sale of Important Australian Art on 24 November. The sale, which grossed $8.55 million, which sold 67% by volume and 112% value, was greatly helped by collectors or their agents who came out and bid freely. The two seriously important works, Fred Williams Trees and Hillside, 1964 (above) and Arthur Boyd's Sleeping Bride (1957-58) sold well over estimates at $1.4 million and $1.3 million (hammer) respectively.

The presence of these “boots (and heels) on the ground” as it were, was publicly acknowledged repeatedly, with thanks by the auctioneer, Martin Gallon, even when they failed to secure their chosen lots.

Bidding was not like a furious game of ping pong as at the Sotheby's Australia auction earlier in the year when bidders thrust their paddles in the air in almost neat puppet-like actions.

However, there were many bidding duels back and forth in the full room as even more relaxed “privates on parade” sought to bed their buys.

They may of course have been out because the evening was far more temperate than in the cold midwinter when the temptation to stay home would have been so much stronger.

Not a single work went to the Internet.

The two seriously important works, Fred Williams Trees and Hillside, 1964 (Lot 15 ) and Arthur Boyd's Sleeping Bride (1957-58) (Lot 19 ) went comfortably over the estimates at $1.4 million and $1.3 million respectively, or $1.71 million and $1.59 million IBP, showing the rarely flagging resilience of the quality and potentially trophy-end of the market.

The several Williams, the Boyd, a Jeffery Smart and a Eugene von Guerard were big contributors the total.

But the a rarer major feature of the sale was the competition for some of the best works by second tier artists. On several occasions, but principally in the bidding for a work by Impressionist Jane Price, record prices were created by two room bidders.

The first and third lots in the sale, a wooden panel Pacific Beach circa 1930-32 by sculptor Rayner Hoff which made $60,000 hammer ($73,000 with premium) against $25,000 to $35,000 estimate and an oil by Justin O'Brien Still Life Against a Landscape at $220,000 hammer ($268,000 with premium against estimates $70,000 to $90,000) set the tone, with both selling for record prices for the artists.

While both eventually went to phone bidders some of the “ping pong” that enlivened the previous sale when bidders threw thrust their paddles in the air in different parts of the room, returned when John Cruthers at the back of the room and a woman at the front threw bids back and forth for Jane Price's Plough Land in Summer (circa 1900) lifting it to $19,000. 

The woman did not look back once to see who she was bidding against even though it sailed above expectation ($10,000 to $15,000) to make $63,440. But she probably knew. There are several big collectors of Australian women artists of which her buyer and Cruthers are leading representatives.

Mr Cruthers said he was devastated to lose the work which had emerged out of the blue for a major Heidelberg exhibition in 1990, and for which he had been hopeful of securing when it eventually came to market but he had clearly set his limits.

He was non-committal about his interest in other artists who raised the flag for the distaff at sales in Perth and Melbourne this week, for a rare Daisy Rossi and a Muntz Adams sold at Mossgreen.

The end of November is a frantically busy period for art sales around the world as auction houses try to clear the  decks for the holidays and all pick the same most likely dates for dispersals in different cities.

Collectors are not buying women artists regardless, for there was little interest in a dark painting of old armchairs by Stella Bowen (unsold at $28,000 on estimates of $30,000 to $40,000).

And Margaret Olley's work has hit a little turbulence in the saleroom of late. This may be a case of “out of sight out of mind” as she died in 2011.

However, at the Sotheby's Australia sale her Still Life of Blossoms, Plums and Pewter Jug (Lot 25 ) sold for the low estimate of $55,000 ($67,100 with premium) to a man in the room with in a tee-shirt decorated with the same earthy Tuscan reds that she used in some of her paintings. (The estimate was $55,000 to $65,000).

A scramble for provenance recently unleashed by Sotheby's Australia for Arthur Streetons owned by Baldwin Spencer continued with St Kilda Pier 1907 (Lot 28 )  making $105,000 ($128,100 with premium) on the phone to a client  by Streeton enthusiast Geoffrey Smith, chairman of Sotheby's Australia. (Estimate $50,000 to $70,000). This, despite the small fleck or dabs of a very busy brush that contrasts strongly with the bravura of the best of the artist's later work.

The greater diversity of the market in the new millennium, and its acceptance of overseas subject matter by Australian or Australianised artists, was displayed when an oil by Eugene von Guerard, titled Marina at Viteri, 1845, a large brightly coloured jigsaw of a picture (Lot 33 ) made $305,000 IBP a useful contribution, even if the hammer of $250,000 was no more than the lower estimate.

Today's market is not so interested in common folk around glorified settlers humpies if Bush Visitors (1859) (Lot 31 ) by South Australian colonial artist Alexander Schramm is any guide. Far better if Sotheby's had secured a "Von Guerified" wool grower's home. The Schramm went unsold at $490,000, the bid not quite making the low estimate of half a million dollars which would have found it a new home.

Years of TV series about grand designs have passed since outback shacks were in vogue with collectors.

The sale represented a reflection of the times with its big wipe out of Norman Lindsay, with only one of three works selling, and that a watercolour rather than the oils which fetched staggering prices in the 1980s despite even then being considered to be not his best medium.

Another blast from the past, Rupert Bunny's Hair Drying (circa 1908) (Lot 29 ), just lived up to lowest expectations when it sold for $280,000 ($341,000 with premium) to Sotheby's painting specialist Brett Ballard, on the phone to a client. (The upper estimate was $380,000.)

The biographer of Bunny, David Thomas, is revisiting the artist's life in a new book to be published shortly to which is expected to expose his Hungarian connections (long before the Perth hospital owner from that hospitable part of the world who made some of his market in the 1980s).

At the sale of the Geoffrey Stilwell's collection by Mossgreen in Hobart on Sunday a dozen lots went to the Allport Library at the State Library of Tasmania of which he had been Allport Librarian  from 1984 to 1995. It was blown out of the water by unknown bidders on the bird painting by Florence Williams but secured the Mary Curzon triptych of geese, a silhouette of Stilwell as a young man, and a bookcase (not his own secretaire).

Several major books including a rare work on Pugin and a first edition of Dickens Pickwick Papers to go with its Launceston pirated edition went in the same direction.

An invitation to the opening of Lady Franklin's museum for which $6000 would apparently have been welcome was unsold. There are others around and the image was used as a bookplate.

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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