By Terry Ingram, on 08-Sep-2017

With the death of Joan McClelland in respite in Melbourne on 4 September, Australia lost its most respected art dealer of many years and most dedicated saleroom habitue. For several decades almost into the 21st century Joan rarely missed an antique and art sale in Melbourne of any note, and many of lesser significance.

She inspected and attended sale after sale, writing down prices diligently as the hammer fell from the days when even the most important of such events did not generate published price lists. Names of buyers were called, some of which were fake of course to protect the interests of the vendor.

As a result, McClelland’s valuations were highly regarded especially in library circles whose instincts by nature of the profession can be very pernickety.

Her death at a good age was not unusual in an industry which used to give value to the preservation – once an antique had to have survived a century to be acknowledged as genuine – but at the age of 104 it marked the end not of just one era but of two. And it was a distinct timeline as she did not just fade away. She drove into town to work in the business, which had traded as the Joshua McClelland Print Room for many of its more than 70 years.

The gallery was named after the antique dealer who founded it and wrote about antiques and art sales for The Argus newspaper in Melbourne when she was a reporter there. She did not go to school until she was 12 but knew early in her life that she wanted to be a reporter.

A series of governesses had helped to give her the character of an independent woman who was able to take to the skies. She flew for fun and also in the back on assignments at The Argus in a Gypsy Moth and took great joy in encountering the occasional inclusion of an image of the plane in a Grosvenor school print in which her “print room” pioneered local appreciation.

At various addresses at the doctor's end of Collins Street the Joshua McClelland Print Room was much more than a print dealership although its early finds in the medium from colonial through to art deco were rapidly taken up by institutions lead by the National Gallery of Australia.

Her early career was advanced via her contribution to the cataloguing of the collection of a man associated with another media business.

She was around when the collection of Sir Keith Murdoch, a member of the top brass of the Herald and Weekly Times and the father of Rupert, came on the market. It was rich in specimens of early Chinese art as well as well French Impressionism.

Joshua McClelland died of a stroke in 1956 and Joan had a brief marriage in the 1970s ending when she was again left a widow. Born Joan Ramsden of the Ramsdens of Nangwarry sheep station and the Australia Paper Mills (now Amcor) she was one of four sisters.

Her daughter, Patricia has long assisted at the Print Room through its several moves in Collins Street and finally to Rathdowne Street in Carlton.

Visits to the gallery were never dull because of the art world identities one might encounter there and Joan’s drollery and inquisitiveness about its goings on. The exhibitions could also be unpredictably eclectic.

Despite being close to the sources, she occasionally, like the rest of us was caught off-guard by market fluctuations. “Quel dommage” she uttered when a slew of sales fell deadly flat in 1996 led by a particularly disappointing auction.

She was excited by many rebounds such as the reappearance at a Sotheby’s sale in Melbourne of a scroll attributed to Guiseppe Castiglione for $564,000. It had been estimated at $15,000 to $20,000 and on offer at the gallery priced at £1200 in 1959.

She was not at all blinkered by the paths being taken by contemporary print makers outbidding leading collector John Kaldor for a rare Tracey Moffatt photograph in May 2000 at $74,000 (hammer).

But perhaps her greatest coup was placing Coming South, a ship -board immigration painting by Tom Roberts, with the National Gallery of Victoria in 1967 on behalf of leading collector Colonel Aubrey Gibson. French in style, it still evoked an era in which Australians still called Australia home.

While few paintings of this calibre still come to light, occasional as at a recent Joel sale in Melbourne from the collection of James Fairfax, fine examples from the gallery's Asian stock have made surprising re-appearances.

She also nurtured collector interest in Herbert Badham’s work well before its current beatification.

A private funeral is planned and a memorial gathering is anticipated at a later date.

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