By Briar Williams in Auckland, on 28-Nov-2019

Owning and running an auction house is one of the most demanding jobs around. The constant pressure to hold sales, consign stock and get good results in a small and highly competitive market is immense. The analogy of a duck swimming is often used to describe the inner workings of an auction house; everything looking calm and serene on top, but staff fiercely treading water down below.

The staff at Art + Object must have felt like ducks on a pond this month, holding their Important Paintings and Contemporary Art Sale, just three weeks after their McCahon/Friedlander sale, and having the print deadline for Important Paintings fall right on their McCahon sale weekend. To make their job even harder, they had offered their high value McCahon consignments for the previous sale and were consigning for the end of the year sale, from clients whose thoughts have turned to the holiday season.

At the Art + Object sale in Auckland on 26 November, the well-publicised untitled Koru painting by Gordon Walters (Lot 62 ) carried one of the highest estimate ranges this year of $500,000-$800,000. The result didn't disappoint, with the work selling for $515,000, setting a new record for a work by Gordon Walters at auction and easily exceeding the previous high price for a work by the artist of $325,000 in 2016, also by Art+ Object.

Despite this, 106 lots were catalogued for the sale, slightly more than the usual offering, including a couple of small collections. Typically at this busy time of year, the crowd was thin at the beginning of the sale with about 50 people in attendance in the room, but a large number of telephone bidders registered for the sale.

The auction started with the first five lots being sold for the benefit of the charity Pride and were sold with no buyer’s premium or vendor’s commission. Most sold with Judy Millar’s work Untitled (Lot 5 ) well exceeding the low estimate of $4,000 to realise $7,000.

The action slowed about lot 15 when a run works were passed in, or swiftly sold around the low estimate. To his credit, the auctioneer Ben Plumbly knows how to read a room and could sense that there wasn’t much point lingering on works without any obvious interest so the sale moved quickly. Pat Hanly’s lovely small-scale oil painting, Mt Eden (Lot 22 ) was passed in at $10,000 and could represent a good opportunity for someone after the sale. The auctioneer tried hard to draw out a bid for Karl Maughan Tarana, (Lot 26 ) but couldn’t elicit interest at $17,000 against a low estimate of $25,000. This was surprising considering the massive upswing in the Karl Maughan prices at auction this year. Another two much larger works also by Karl Maughan Bowral (Lot 55 ) and Warrnambool Ballarat Diptych (Lot 56 ) were also unsold with no bids.

Paintings by Bill Hammond were also sought after on the night including Ancestral (Lot 57 ) a work on paper from the series of the same name of the mid 2000s, which again had multiple phone bidders and sold nicely above the low estimate of $35,0000 at $39,000 and Restoration (Lot 58 ) an earlier work from the late 1980s which was painted on a found Chinoiserie screen, repeated its sale price from 2009 realising $55,000 against a $50,000 reserve.

As well as the major painting, another five prints and works on paper by Gordon Walters were offered with No II (Lot 47 ) finding a home at $6,000 and Untitled (Lot 49 ) keeping the auctioneer busy with four phone bidders for this work on paper. The painting successfully balanced Walters’ most recognisable Koru motif with the Rauponga form and the inclusion of one blue koru in his signature blue/grey colour added an extra layer of interest. In the end the phones lost out to the room to a lone gentleman who turned up for that lot, bid to $45,000 against a $30,000 reserve, claimed his prize and left the room soon after.

Anticipation was running high when the sale finally reached the well-publicised painting by Gordon Walters Untitled (Lot 62 ) as it went into the sale carrying one of the highest estimate ranges this year $500,000-$800,000 and the highest estimate for a work by Walters at auction. The historical high price for a work by the artist sold at auction of $325,000 was set in 2016 at Art+ Object by another Koru work but that one was blue and black rather than the more desirable black and white colour combination like this one.

The estimate was lofty, but this landmark work was the one to test the market. There was a potential phone bidder on the line at the start, but it was left to the auctioneer to open with a vendor bid at $400,000. The phone bidder came in at $410,000 followed by another vendor bid at $420,000 before two consultants/dealers in the room pitched in with $10,000 rises before a room bidder successfully won out at $515,000, setting a new record for a work by Gordon Walters at auction. The provenance on the lot stated that Untitled was last sold at Webb’s in 1989 and while I couldn’t locate that result, a quick check of the AASD records showed that a comparable work went unsold for $25,000 in 1993 so one can assume that the purchase price of Untitled was similar.

The attendance thinned after the sale of the Walters and the remainder of the sale comprised works of lesser importance and small contemporary pieces, including works from the estate of Simon Manchester, one of New Zealand’s foremost ceramic collectors who also collected art. The good provenance of these 12 lots meant almost everything sold, including a very cute and quirky work by ceramicist Paul Masesyk (Lot 82 ) which had three phone bidders complete to $2,300 against a $1,000 reserve.

The final sale of the year was a respectable and solid effort for the A+O team. There were a good number of sales in the $15,000-$50,000 bracket which really helped to lift the total on the night to $1,219,000. There is one more sale at A+O in about 2 weeks which includes some colonial and topographical art so there will be more frantic underwater paddling required before the year is out!

Postscript: We have since been able to check the Webb's archive and the Walters was offered in April 1989, titled as Koru Painting and was illustrated on the front cover of the catalogue.  It was estimated at $13,000-$20,000 and went unsold.  Thanks to Charles Ninow at Webb's for his assistance with providing this information. 

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About The Author

Briar Williams is an Art Valuer and Auctioneer who has worked in the primary and secondary markets of New Zealand and Australia for over 15 years. In Melbourne she managed a commercial gallery and was a valuer at Leonard Joel Auctioneers & Valuers before becoming Head of Art there in 2009. Most recently, she was the manager of the art department at Mossgreen-Webb's in Auckland and currently works as an art writer and consultant.