By David Hulme & Brigitte Banziger, on 29-Aug-2019

The exhibition “Sydney Moderns – Art for a New World” at the Art Gallery in NSW in 2012 was a ground breaking, timely and beautiful display of Australia’s greatest modernist artists, featuring the best, in particular of so many female painters including Margaret Preston and Grosvenor School prints makers Ethel Spowers, Dorrit Black and Evelyn Syme, to name just a few. Two male painters prominently featured in “Sydney Moderns” were Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin.

Way ahead of the curve as private collectors of these greats of Australian modernism were Melbourne couple Ken and Joan Plomley. This was demonstrated in the offering of their carefully honed collection of 36 paintings and prints starting off the  Deutscher + Hackett fine art sale at the National Art School of 130 works on 28 August 2019.

Roy de Maistre's exuberant and colourful Interior (Sam Courtauld’s Villa, France), 1948 brightened up the bidders for the collection of Melbourne couple Ken and Joan Plomley, with the $60,000-80,000 hopes looking rather tame against its eventual $120,000 hammer price. Their carefully honed collection of 36 paintings and prints lead the Deutscher + Hackett fine art auction of 28 August at the National Art School, in Sydney with gusto.

Strong bidding followed on from a very successful Sotheby’s auction the previous evening also in Sydney, where the majority of important fine art sales are held these days, with Melbourne very much taking the back seat.

The first nine lots were by Roy de Maistre, in fact a distant cousin of Ken Plomley. Collectors do like De Maistre’s still lifes, and Gerberas, 1926 (Lot 1 ), was no exception, its muted tones and thick brush strokes sure to entice. This early painting quickly gathered bids and secured a comfortable $100,000 hammer price (estimates $80-100k).

The Meeting in the Garden, c1929 (Lot 2 ) did even better, more than meeting expectations of $150,000-200,000; it sold for $210,000 nicely above the high estimate. There were similar high notes for the wonderfully cubist picture Figure with Guitar, c.1932-35 (Lot 3 ). This grand design was last offered at a Christies sale in October 1974, when Ken and Joan Plomley acquired it for $6,500. Last night at D+H, it sold for $140,000 hp (est. $100-150k). For those interested to “invest in art”, this may look like an extremely astute pick (even adjusted for inflation, as the $6,500 in 1974 equate to just under $60,000 today, so still a large sum at the time).

Similar success was achieved for all 9 lots by De Maistre, with Paysage Automne, 1923 (Lot 4 ) selling for $50,000 (est. $30-40k), while Man Reading (Portrait of G. Davis) 1926 (Lot 6 ) achieved the high estimate of $24,000. The later exuberant and more colourful Interior (Sam Courtauld’s Villa, France), 1948 (Lot 7 ), brightened up the bidders too, with the $60,000-80,000 hopes looking rather tame against its eventual $120,000 hammer price. The equally colourful Still Life with Melon and Bell (Lot 8 ) sold for a slice above the high estimate for $31,000.

Margaret Preston’s Indoor Still Life, 1913 (Lot 9 ) marked the start of the offering of six paintings and prints by this ever popular artist. The estimates of this rather sublime painting of $150,000-200,000 became leftovers when it finally sold for $220,000 to a bidder on the phone.

Buyers in the room and on the phone were keen on Preston’s woodcut prints, if not her monotypes, with four out of five selling. The Bridge from North Shore, c1932 (Lot 10 ) proved the most popular and sold for $24,000 (est. $15-20k).

The unusually large group of Grosvenor School prints led to brisk and spirited bidding not just from Australian schoolies, but also Brits. Claude Flights Speed, c1922 (Lot 15 ) sped off with a number of quick bids. This rare print sold to a room bidder comfortably above the high expectations for $40,000 (est. $25-35k).

Similarly, Cyril Powers’ The Tube Station, c1932 (Lot 16 ) did not look like it was heading back to Old Blighty either: a well-known local collector caught it just in time for $48,000, $13,000 above the high estimate.

The buyer of Ethel Spowers’ The Gust of Wind, 1930-31 (Lot 17 ) might well consider they have picked up somewhat of a bargain on paying just $30,000 (at the low end of expectations), given that in April 2012 Bonhams in London sold another example of this very same print for $175,000 (incl. buyer’s premium).

Dorrit Black’s very rare print Bush Wind Mill, 1927-28 (Lot 19 ) generated very great interest: stiff competition lifted it to $40,000, and soaring well past the high estimate of $15,000.

Ethel Spowers’ Melbourne from the River, c1924 (Lot 20 ) was also clearly much loved too by collectors of her work, as it sold for $28,000 (est.$10-15k) to Damien Hackett’s phone bidder – perhaps from Melbourne?

Portrait of Marjorie Fear, 1931 (Lot 24 ) by Roland Wakelin was estimated at $15,000-20,000 but failed to attract any bids, sparking auctioneer Roger McIlroy to quip “not selling, I fear”.

Meanwhile, back with Roy de Maistre, a quaint painting with a steam train in The Mossvale Railway Station, ca 1926 (Lot 26 ) didn’t run out of puff until it sold for $35,000, considerably above the $10,000-15,000 estimates.

It was a rare delight to view five sparkling modernist watercolours by Queensland’s Kenneth MacQueen. Although The Farmer’s Fence, 1928 (Lot 32 ) failed to sell, bidders suddenly woke up when Early Morning, 1934 (Lot 33 ) was offered, paying a very bright $26,000 hp on modest estimates of just $8,000-12,000. Other MacQueen works lot 34, lot 35 and lot 36 all sold well at or above their high estimates.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the Plomleys on the benefits of building carefully considered museum quality collections of art, and how the value of that collection in time can be so much more than the sum of its parts.

Donald Friend’s stunning local scene Double Bay, 1956 (Lot 38 ) excited buyers, and its modest estimates of $35,000-45,000 were soon overrun with a sale at $65,000.

One of the stand-out pictures of the night was Roland Wakelin’s Hotel Scene, circa 1950 (Lot 39 ). I couldn’t help but be reminded of Herbert Badham’s Snack Bar, 1944, which was also sold by Deutscher + Hackett in 2015 and famously refused an export permit to leave Australia, sold for $456,000 IBP on estimates of $90,000-120,000.

Roland Wakelin’s much larger painting was offered with half the expectations (est. $45k-65k) and soon found favour if not flavour with a number of bidders, finally selling for $180,000 hp, a new auction record for the artist. We have to go back 25 years to August 1994 to find anything comparable pricewise, when Sotheby’s sold The Bridge Under Construction for $160,000 hp. Hotel Scene last sold also at Sotheby’s in August 1996 for $36,000 hp.

Charles Blackman’s reclining Schoolgirl, 1953 (Lot 42 ) sold at its low estimate of $150,000, somewhat of a modest price for an important painting from the artist’s iconic Schoolgirls series of works.

However, Alice Tall, 1956 (Lot 43 ), of equal importance and period from Blackman’s Alice in Wonderland series failed to find a buyer on its tall $400,000-600,000 hopes.

Fred Williams’ Silver Landscape, 1968 (Lot 45 ), was looking like a steal at estimates of $380,000-450,000, particularly following the spectacular result of a $1.4 million hammer price for the much-admired Mount Kosciusko landscape at Sotheby’s just the night before, which was the 7th highest price ever achieved for Fred Williams at auction. No bargains to be had for this one either, though, selling for a very healthy $540,000 hp.

Two other major paintings that achieved significant results were Jeffrey Smart’s The Tuscan Farmhouse, 1980 (Lot 47 ), which comfortably overshot the low estimate of $600,000, but didn’t quite make the top of $800,000 to sell for $740,000 hp.

With some very major paintings sold just recently at Menzies and Sotheby’s, Howard Arkley’s Floriated Address, 1995 (Lot 48 ) also did well, selling at the low estimate of $600,000. Good to see house prices on the move wherever they may be.

It was a real test of Ben Quilty’s more difficult and later paintings last evening, with three large scale works on offer. There was no interest in Crash Painting, 2010 (Lot 49 ), even though estimates were modest at $60,000-80,000. Arguably even more challenging works from 2013 and 2014, Seroquel (Lot 93 ) at $55,000-75,000, and Self Portrait, Saint Denis (Lot 96 ) at $15,000-20,000 also failed to find buyers in a secondary market that clearly loves his earlier paintings, which are usually snapped up.

Oft repeated (at least by me anyway) is the clamour for works by Cressida Campbell. The massive rise in the value of her work in the auction room is having an effect, as collectors are feeling the urge to take profits. A new auction record price for Campbell was set again at Sotheby’s the night before at $240,000 hp for a beautiful interior, with four offerings all sold on the night.

Not to be outdone, Deutscher + Hackett also had four Cressida Campbells to sell, and sell them they did. The best of these was, like the Sotheby’s interior scene, the actual incised woodblock rather than the reverse image print on paper.

Many (including me) consider the incised woodblocks to be more special and valuable than the print on paper. Eucalypt Forest, 2000 (Lot 53 ) came with keen estimates of $75,000-95,000, especially given recent prices achieved. Not surprisingly, this gem of a work doubled its high estimates and sold for $190,000 hp.

Many of the artworks from the pARTners art collective, a group of Melbourne art enthusiasts who assembled this collection of Australian contemporary art from 2006 to 2016, found favour with buyers, in particular Gordon Bennett’s Notes to Basquiat: Modernity, 1999 (Lot 55 )  which sold well above the high estimate for $90,000 (est. $40k-60k).

The colonial part of the evening’s sale revealed another side and more treasures from the Ken and Joan Plomley collection, starting with a somewhat delightful, naïve watercolour of the artist’s daughter Fanny Hardwicke dated c1822-24. The market usually responds exceptionally well to these rare early colonial works, and no exception last night. Purchased by the Plomleys at a Leonard Joel sale 40 years ago, Fanny Hardwicke: a Native with a Ringtailed Possum, Van Diemen’s Land (Lot 72 ) soared to $75,000 hp (est. $20k-30k) for works that become ever scarcer in private hands.

Major works by Conrad Martens are also very rare to market. The last two were also sold by Deutscher + Hackett, Sydney from Robertson Point, 1853, sold four years ago in August 2015 for $132,000, and Storm over North Head, 1856, sold in May of the same year for $120,000. It should not come as a surprise that View of Sydney Cove, 1838 (Lot 73 ), complimented by an impeccable provenance, should also surpass the high hopes, selling for a cool quarter of a million dollars (est. $160k-240k).

In the impressionist field, three room bidders in close proximity also battled it out for a highly atmospheric View from Mount Macedon, c1907 (Lot 79 ) by Frederick McCubbin. On estimates of $60,000-80,000, it also outdid the top estimate by quite a bit: the relieved looking buyer paid $110,000 hp.

The overall result of Deutscher + Hackett’s winter 2019 auction achieved $7.059 million in sales on the night, before the usual after-sales.

Sale Referenced:

About The Author

David Hulme is a fine art appraiser and an approved valuer for the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. He and Brigitte Banziger are principals of Banziger Hulme Fine Art Consultants, Manly, NSW and are members of the Art Consulting Association of Australia.