By Briar Williams in Auckland, on 05-Apr-2021

Webb’s first Works of Art Sale for 2021, their premium sales category, hit the market with all the bells and whistles, we’ve come to expect from the business.  A boutique style catalogue, rich in essays, lots of archival and contextual photographs, extra quotes and excerpts of poetry presents more like an art publication than a sales tool.   There were professionally produced videos on Instagram interviewing some of the artists and lots of interesting social media content in the leadup to the sale.

Webb’s first Works of Art Sale for 2021 in Auckland on 29 March saw a new record set for the work of contemporary female painter Seraphine Pick. High Rise (above) had engaged bidders on the night across all the bidding channels and sold for $77,000 well above the low estimate of $50,000.

There was a pre-sale viewing in Wellington, then once the artwork was back in Auckland, an opening night as well as a separate invitation only dinner with a plant based BBQ cooked over fire pits outside the rooms and a gift from fashion design store WORLD.  All this pre-sale publicity is expensive to provide and as are the little extras at the auction, Mumm Champagne and the now obligatory gourmet kettle chips and peanuts which have become a must have for the in-room attendees.

This type of marketing tactic, in a business built on key interpersonal relationships is a providing a point of difference in the highly competitive business of consigning high value or interesting, fresh to the market stock.  Previously, touring the auction highlights out of Auckland was reserved for high value lots of great quality, or single vendor sales.  Now it appears that Webb’s is building that as standard into their auction marketing.   

Michael Parekowhai’s Acts (Lot 1 ) was well positioned as the first lot in the sale to capitalise on the recent interest in his work at auction.  Dating from early in his career, this collection of bronze tools and weapons had three phone bidders plus more in the room contesting the work.  Starting below low estimate of $5,000 at $3,500 a $7,000 knockout bid was called before quick bids increased the price to $11,000 to sell to one of the phone bidders.

A very strong example of one of New Zealand’s most recognised expressionist painters Phillip Trusttum sold very well early on in the sale.  Looking Out (Lot 9 ) which dates from 1974, his lauded Garden Series period, shows an almost van Gogh like interior scene looking out to a landscape through a window.  Strong in colour and dynamic in line, this work had multiple bidders on the phone, internet and in the room and it sold at the top estimate of $25,000 to an art consultant in the room.

A well marketed watercolour by Louise Henderson Untitled (Lot 12 ) which featured heavily in the sale leadup alongside other works by her contemporary, Doris Lusk was the surprise lot of the sale.  This densely coloured watercolour dated from 1972, the same time that she was painting views of her lush green garden from her garden in Epsom and this watercolour captured some of the sense of these paintings albeit with more colour.  The paintings from this period, much larger in scale would usually achieve around $6,000-$8,000 although the recent touring exhibition has done much to increase her popularity.  Nevertheless, it was a total surprise when three phone bidders and one in the room competed in a very slow and drawn out bidding process to take the work from the low estimate of $10,000 to a final hammer price of $25,000 and to set a new record for a work on paper, and one of the top prices for her work overall.

Slow and drawn out did seem to be the catchphrase for the evening and the sale seemed to take an extra-ordinarily long time.  Great results achieved for Paratene Matchitt’s Untitled (Lot 28 ) a seminal piece of Maori modernism ($27,000 against a low estimate of $16,000 and a new record) and a very rare and well provenanced piece of Maori Folk art (Lot 31 ) by Hori Paraone which almost achieved it’s aspirational low estimate of $35,000, (sold for $28,000) were overshadowed by the length of time it took to sell Ralph Hotere’s Pipiwharauroa (Lot 39 ).  A $40,000 bid online under the estimate moved up in the standard $2,500 increments, until it was left to the room and the phone to battle it out.  It looked like the hammer was coming down at $55,000 before someone bid again, and it took about 5 minutes to move up $16,000 and I managed to go and fill up my wine, grab a bag of chips and finish them, all before the hammer finally came down at $71,000.

By 8.30pm, just under two hours after the auction started, we were only at lot 50, a pace akin to a single vendor sale where you would expect many bidders on each lot and prices well over estimates.  Auctioneer Charles Ninow was giving each bidder plenty of time to place their bid and while this strategy worked on the Hotere to gain an extra $16,000, it is a risk the slow pace as the auctioneer may lose other engaged bidders.

A trio of three paintings by popular contemporary artist Grahame Sydney, representing the early, later and figurative aspects of his career were a nice inclusion in the sale. The best works by the artist are tightly held and rarely appear at auction. Hawkdun Moon 2004 (Lot 50 ) was the most desirable of the three, a central Otago landscape with the beautiful layers of light against the Hawkdun range that the artist is renowned for.  This work had an additional layer of special provenance, being gifted by the artist to New Zealand historian Michael King during his battle with cancer.  Multiple bidders across the phone, room and internet competed to take the work from $45,000 to above top estimate at $82,000.  The early work, Fats (Lot 52 ) from the artist’s first commercial exhibition in 1972 went unsold on the night but sold the next day at $50,000.

Another auction highlight was the new record set for the work of contemporary female painter Seraphine Pick. Very few of these major early works have appeared at auction, but as it often the way, Art + Object had consigned one from the same date and same exhibition at Hamish McKay Gallery in 1995 in their sale the previous week.  Their work was larger, had a higher estimate and was sold post sale.  By comparison, High Rise (Lot 54 ) had engaged bidders on the night across all the bidding channels and sold for $77,000 well above the low estimate of $50,000.

Riding on the coat tails of two record setting prices in 2020 for Tony Fomison, was the inclusion of his Blue Self Portrait 1977 (Lot 55 ).  Without the high chiaroscuro or important narrative component found in last year’s works, the estimate on Blue Self Portrait was again aspirational for a very small work at $100,000-$150,000.  By comparison to other parts of the sale, the bidding on this painting moved swiftly, and was sold subject to the internet at $75,000 and subsequently transacted the following day at that price.

The remaining 20 or so lots in the sale comprised of works which were generally too expensive, reoffers or not quite as desirable as the first part of the sale.  The clearance rate here wasn’t great which bought the overall clearance down to 50% by lot post-sale. Further works were sold the following day bringing the total up to $1,767,000 including buyer’s premium and a clearance of 72% by lot, which is a good result and a big increase compared to what the art department at Webb’s was turning over just a couple of years ago. 


All prices quoted are hammer price in $NZ and do not include buyer’s premium unless stated.

Sale Referenced:

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.