BLUE CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
While you might expect that increases in inflation and interest rates would deter art buyers, the Spring 2023 Australian auctions demonstrated that Blue Chip artworks are still commanding top prices. However, the art market appears to have entered a period of selective correction; the ball is now falling much more heavily in the buyer’s court.
After several years of rather wild bidding during the boredom of the pandemic, second and third-rate pictures are struggling – people are buying less into just the ‘brand’ of artists, but rather cherry-picking and dissecting their work.
New Auction Records for Australian Artists
The first auction to hit the block was Deutscher & Hackett’s strongly anticipated sale of Important Australian & International Art held in Melbourne, which saw several auction records set including that of an Australian Impressionist painting. The record was broken when their trophy lot, John Peter Russell’s Souvenir de Belle-Ile, sold for just under $4 million (including Buyer’s Premium), well over the $1.5-2 million estimate. This resounding new auction record (for the Australian artist who holds a unique place in Australian art history as a result of his close association with the European avant-garde and his acquaintance with prominent Impressionism and Post-Impressionism figures) was in part due to the work’s unique freshness to the market. The work had remained in the possession of the same family since 1897.
Although the Russell aided the auction’s total, making up 25% of the $15.44 million (including Buyer’s Premium), there were several other leading pieces, including works from both the Joan and Peter Clemenger Collection and the Krongold Collection. The striking Sydney Nolan piece entitled Early Morning Township made $2.7 million against its $1.5-2 million estimate.
The room witnessed further records broken when Del Kathryn Barton’s Of Pink Plantes sold for $527,727 (including Buyer’s Premium). Her previous record was held by We Will Ride, a similar-sized work that sold at Smith & Singer in November 2022 and made $466,364 (including Buyer’s Premium). While the chimeric goddess attained a new auction record, the sculptural work by Barton entitled More The Her went unsold at $70,000.
Further, unsold lots included John Brack’s Seated Nude With Screen from the Joan and Peter Clemenger Collection, which surprisingly failed to find a buyer at $420,000, significantly under its $500,000 – $700,000 estimate.
Although Deutscher & Hackett might blame the success of the Matilda’s on their 82% sale rate, it perhaps rather encapsulates the evolving preferences of collectors – quality over quantity.
2023 Auction Trends Continue at Smith & Singer
The trend continued at the Smith & Singer auction held the following week (and whose sale did not clash with the Women’s World Cup soccer).
The cover lot, a stellar work by Fred Williams, Mason’s Falls, that was estimated at a bullish $2-3 million, saw another record set. The work, one of only six large-scale paintings from this series and also fresh to the auction market, saw a number of bidders both in the room and on the telephone chase the work. It finally sold to a dealer in the room who also purchased the Streetons, Gascoigne, Gruner, a Storrier, and two Whiteley works for $2.6 million hammer, thus achieving the second highest price for a work of art at auction in 2023.
However, the most spectacular result of the evening was the record set for the sculptural work by Joel Elenberg; in fact, it was a record set for an Australian sculpture at auction! The work was heavily fought over by two telephone bidders. The hammer finally fell at $925,000, over double its high estimate ($350,000 – $450,000). The work had previously sold at Sotheby’s Australia in 2010 for $192,000 (including Buyer’s Premium). Only 41 works have ever appeared at auction, and works by the artist continue to be extremely rare; thus, the desire to secure a work remains high.
One cannot forget the charming Isobel Rae, Femme Bretone a Jardin Étapeles, which also set a record at $420,000 hammer for a work by the little-known allusive artist.
The sale, however, also had its share of unsold works. The 1967 Charles Blackman, Dreaming Girl, failed to find a home at $110,000, alongside the Sidney Nolan Convict in Landscape, which passed at the same level. Further lower-value works also went unsold towards the end of the evening. The sale total was $11,837,000 ($14,527,228, including buyer’s premium), with an 85% sale rate.
Bonhams & Beyond
Following on the success of The Fred and Elinor Wrobel Collection: A Curated Salon that came to market in April, Bonhams conducted the second part of the sale, The Fred and Elinor Wrobel Collection: The Artist’s Eye. The sale focused on landscapes, scenes of the harbor, and beach life.
The Wrobels’ astute eye, considered approach, and continuing support of women artists were noticeable in the results of the sale. The sale started with a bang, with the View of Sydney Harbour Bridge by Portia Stranston Geach selling for $54,120 (including Buyer’s Premium). This was ten times the low estimate of $5,000-$7,000. The two most important acquisitions in the collection, Grace Cossington Smith’s Thanksgiving Service and Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Children at Mount Annan, Holbrook, did well, with the former selling for $172,200 (including Buyer’s Premium) against an estimate of $100,000 – $180,000. And the Nicholas’, which was estimated at $60,000-$90,000, was chased all the way up to $159,900, including Buyer’s Premium). Both works were closely related to important paintings, held in the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane collection, and were fresh to market.
The Wrobels collection included works that were quintessentially part of the Australian psyche, and Sidney Nolan’s representation of Ned Kelly entitled Jerilderie encapsulated this completely. The work belonged to a small group of curtain studies created in response to his successful ‘second series’ Redfern exhibition in 1955. The work depicts Kelly, mounted on horseback, riding into Jerilderie, the location of the infamous bank heist in 1879. The small yet prized work was undoubtedly a highlight of the collection. The work was attractively estimated at $140,000-$180,000, enticing bidding all the way up to $239,850 (including Buyer’s Premium)
The sale was extremely well covered regarding the number of bidders, with only one work withdrawn and a 90% sale rate by lot.
The success of their single-owner sale did not, however, carry on into their sale of Important Australia Art, perhaps with auction fatigue hitting the room. The sale had a sell-through rate of 61% by lot, with a number of lots failing to find buyers, including the Howard Arkley that had been estimated at $100,000-$150,000. There were still several highlights to the sale, including works from the collection of the late Dr. & Mrs. Jackson. The sale commenced with the sale of the Still Life by Godfrey Miller, sold for $11,685 (including Buyer’s Premium) against an estimate of $2,500 – $3,500. The desire for Miller continued with Mountains selling for $29,520, again over double its low estimate.
Works by female artists continued to perform strongly, with the large abstract work by Aida Tomescu fetching $35,670 (including Buyer’s Premium) against an estimate of $18,000 – $25,000. And the stunning depictions of Coneflowers and Pears by Margaret Olley that once came from Philip Bacon, making double its low estimate ($60,000-$80,000) selling for $123,000).
Market Uncertainty has Advantages
Amid the sea of change, a window of opportunity may have emerged. Various economic factors may result in an increased focus on asset acquisition, particularly in the art world; however, savvy buyers may just be able to discover attractive price adjustments. Are we seeing a pause in the overheated sellers’ market? Time will tell.
As advisors to a vast number of collectors who are looking to invest in fine arts and acquire art as an asset, we feel that continuing to collect during periods of uncertainty presents definite advantages.
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GLOBAL ART SERVICES POWERHOUSE
TFG has maintained an unrivaled track record across the art world for over two decades. TFG helps clients navigate all aspects of the art market, from providing assistance with collection strategies, acquisitions, appraisals, and selling works of art to art financing. This new collaboration with Roger McIlroy adds to the definition of TFG as an art industry innovator now available to meet new market demands in the Pacific region.