And it is still only half the story. The author Christopher Heathcote tells it from the perspective of a bystander on the commercial gallery round rather than a saleroom habitué.
But he does not neglect the role played by the local and global auction houses and the factors which brought them to Australia from which they have essentially now departed.
In the early 1970s the Australian dollar was very strong especially against the British pound and much of Mayfair was booking flights to Australia.
The Australian dollar also bought more US dollars although its trade was a little less desperate. When the National Gallery of Australia bought Blue Poles in 1973 its price of $US2 million translated into only $A1.2 million.
The most conspicuous omissions from the book are the dead. There is hardly any mention of the “dug-ups”, the forgotten artists whose rediscovered work and eminence was the main fodder for the secondary market of the period.
The dealer resale market was then so much bigger than today and young living artists were not as trusted by collectors to persevere as they are today when there is so much less old art around to be traded.
One or two of the more colourful dealers who “dug up” some of the dug-ups - forgotten artists – and reframed and represented their work have also been overlooked.
A lot of young Australian dealers and curators had also yet to make their mark. Heathcote, then an emerging critic and academic but now teaching Shakespeare, did not yet have a dealer he could compare with Lady McBeth.
Several would be Falstaffs lurking in the shadows. One wonders who Dobell had in mind when he painted that character.
Kym Bonython, the jazz fanatic is there but not Hugh Bonython who built a nuclear bomb proof gallery to house his finds at Mount Barker in South Australia, mainly Norman Lindsay oils and works by the early 20th century painter of bush anecdote J A Turner.
The 1980s were more productive with the market’s retreat and dashes to the departure lounges of the over extended one of which one manages a supermarket in the US, having never returned.
The book is all text and a brilliant one to dip into. The index suggests that neither Lindsay nor J A Turner are mentioned.
Yet the importance of Turner, who has since been despatched back to the Culture Bin, was reflected in an advertisement placed in the newspapers by a Melbourne stockbroker who was finding each time he bought one of his works the price increased, thereby increasing the value of the rest of his collection. That is, the art market of the day could be like the share market of the day.
The advertisement read” WANTED Paintings by Turner, J.A.NOT J. M.W. (or James Mallord William Turner) the famous 19th century British artist)
Within 15 years the top price of JAs work had risen from four figures to six. The sum of over $300,000 paid by Coles supermarket developer Warren Anderson equalled one of JMWs finer works and a J.A. established a new auction record price of $115,000 for any piece of Australian art.
Heathcote explains that as the project began to take shape, it began to become self- limiting.
This was fortuitous as a lot of material he gathered relating to the origins of the modern commercial gallery circuit has been preserved and more specialised studies on the excluded areas might yet be to come from elsewhere.
It is difficult to trip him up on any omission even allowing for a book that could be forgiven for being Melbourne-centric reflecting his own background. George Vago and the Paddington’s Villiers Gallery’s prone to be forgotten excursion into selling works by Frank Auerbach. (Young art students would be staggered to learn that today.)
So is car dealer Doug Fugger’s Park Art Gallery in a grand Grecian building previously occupied by the Goethe Institute. The gallery contained a lot of expensive pretty pictures in fancy gold frames, and I remember, a colonial four poster bed which seemed to underline the importance of the tryst in the art of the deal.
Heathcote dips his lid to Barry Stern in a most affectionate profile that sums up graphically the Sydney dealer’s profile and ground-breaking activities, idiosyncracies and charm.
The period was very seminal for J. M. W. Turner as well as J. As as one of JA's fine large oils was purchased for the NGV by a group of patrons including Associated Securities, a finance company which later ceased trading.
The purchase was made at one of the exhibitions held by Thomas Agnews and Son at the David Jones Art Gallery. Another such purchase was a Claude Lorrain, which at $138,000 was then reported to be the most expensive painting ever to be bought by an Australian collector.
The oil on enamel landscape was bought by James Fairfax, another rare omission from the cast of characters who emerge as the players of the period as seen by Heathcote.
Heathcote does a fairly respectable coverage job on the department store galleries, which I Christened the “depARTmentals” and which were particularly strong in Sydney.
But the author’s limited interest in dead artists extends to the internationals which were then being marketed strongly Down Under especially at DJ's. Lobbying had begun to persuade the Federal Government to take the sales tax off imported art, said to be denying us so much potential heritage. (It has subsequently been revived as GST, not specifically on art.)
The author himself has blotted out many of the characters who made the market in art over this period in the self-limited process.
George Grunhut, at whose Blue Boy Gallery in Melbourne it was possible to enter and encounter Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan in animated conversation over coffee on many occasion, was omitted solely because the project, a labour of love, was getting out of hand.
Grunhut’s purchases and resales help sustain the three leading members of their generation over a decade or more and he might, Heathcote agrees, have deserved a little more respect but for the exponential growth of the project.
The project may suggest the importance of galleries and dealerships in maintaining their archives as Australian Gallery’s was among those Heathcote burrowed into, whereas very individual single operators like Grunhut may have had no interest in maintaining archives. Archives sometimes preserve unwanted secrets.
Inside the Art Market… is published by one of the world’s great art book publishers Thames and Hudson. That it is published without any illustrations is a remarkable demonstration of confidence in the author.
The text, however, speaks for itself. It was a period when edgy dealers were “honest crooks,” to use a term used by Danuta Rogowski, one of the great characters who also fails to make the grade.
Any edginess tended to become a little blacker after the recession Mr Keating told us we had to have in the 1990s – not just in the official uniforms of the art trade of the day with its “gallerists” and curators which were black for both women and men - and when the scene became much bigger. .
Heathcote jumps to more recent times when the scene was also changed by the emergence of “a conspicuous new player, the Lowenstein-Sharp-Feiglin accountancy firm, “which swiftly became adviser to nearly every significant artist.”
As recent publicity for a coming auction for a related source suggests, the plight of artists was much reduced by their ability to swap pictures for advice. It suggests that the market has gone back to an old format – bartering which must be hellishly difficult to figure out for the ATO.