However, Crawford who has a gallery called 69 John Street in Leichhardt in Sydney has reservations about whether he would pursue such an operation again. He confirmed the initial impression that he came out ahead, but it appears to have been a nail-biting experience. Crawford took aim at the politics of the Australian art world in which institutions seemingly do not come to the party on re-offered material because of the likelihood of criticism that they failed to buy when initially offered and now have to give the dealer involved a profit.
Most dealers are happy to lay low when this happens and do not contradict the museum publicist’s frequent insistence that they were instrumental in making the find. Much work can go into making a find but the Baudin drawings find was an accident.
Its early contact portraits of Aborigines could have had a home in many an Australian art or history collection, Crawford said. It is still not clear where seven of the nine works that were sold, have gone.
The first word Crawford had of the offering was the arrival of the catalogue six days before the sale.
By day three he was on a plane to Paris to buy them, with a brief stop at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney where coincidentally other drawings from the expedition from the Le Havre Museum were on display.
In bidding on the Paris offering he adopted a strategy of letting a few go lest it encourage the opposition. But he turned out to be the only buyer disclosed to date in the room, in competition with London bookseller Maggs and a leading French rare bookseller. So far only one institution, the Allport Library at the State Library of Tasmania has put up its hand as a buyer of two of the works*. So much of the bidding may have been private buyers, but unknown to him.
There are always arguments for or against an acquisition and Crawford, son of the art dealer, the late Lance Crawford is riled that this time the institutions seem to have passed it by. There was not much time between the appearance of the Baron-Ribeyre & Associes catalogue and the auction. Institutions do not always react positively to reminders that the material is available. Taxpayers and aldermen would prefer the curators be awarded the credit for making the finds.
Few could have acted as quickly as Crawford did to the sale. He made his bids in the room and despite the availability of the internet and telephone, that was where the auction was played out in the old-fashioned way.
He concedes the French catalogue was adequate in its descriptions but one thing that was not clear was the exceptional condition of the drawings which had been passed down through the families of the artists on board. Added to the hammer price were the commission and many extra charges that Continental European auction houses add on, usually totaling around 30 per cent.
The French heritage police, usually noted for the comprehensive and often much delayed pre-emptions of material that are considered vital to the heritage, had a limited sum with which to pursue them, he says.
But it took four months for them to make up their minds what to forego. Western Australian media magnate Kerry Stokes has been nominated as the likely buyer for the WA material in the sale, but word has not been forthcoming on whether the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW purchased anything of NSW interest.
Arbitrage, as buying in one place to sell at a profit in more appreciated surroundings, was a mainstay of the art business pre-Internet and has continued to be one of Crawford’s most rewarding activities since he opened the gallery six years ago. He has made a series of finds, including a £48,000 work by Edward Seago (1910-74) which he “arbitraged” to the UK thanks to his presence in an enclave where two auction houses are situated.
*The Tasmanian Government’s press release stated that two portraits were being purchased from the Allport Bequest Fund. This fund was established in 1965 solely for the acquisition of items for the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts collection.
“Lot 5 from the auction featured two portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal men drawn in 1802 from when Baudin’s expedition was in the vicinity of Bruny Island, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Maria Island. (this was one of the unsold lots at the sale with an estimate of $300,000 to $400,000)
“The artist is Nicholas-Martin Petit (1777-1804) whose drawings have been heralded as some of the most sensitive and important depictions of Tasmanian Aboriginal people from this time.
“These extremely rare portraits were recently unearthed from a private French collection. (Count Eric de Gourcuff and his wife Yolaine.)
“The portraits are of immense cultural significance and Libraries Tasmania is thrilled to be able to bring the portraits back to Tasmania, where they can be safely housed, digitised and accessed by the public.
”The Chair of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Mr Tim Bugg, the management committee and the Allport Curator, Caitlin Sutton, are to be commended for acquiring these significant works.
There has been no word from The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery but there remains the possibility that a private buyer could donate their purchase.