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Aussie Houses Surge as Christie’s Moves Down Under Sales to London

Sotheby’s Nov. 26 sale of Australian art at Paddington Town Hall, Sydney, grossed A$6.7 million ($5.9 million), at the lower end of its A$6.3/$8.6 million estimate, with 70.3 percent of 111 lots sold. By value the auction was 71.8 percent sold.

SYDNEY—Sotheby’s Nov. 26 sale of Australian art at Paddington Town Hall, Sydney, grossed A$6.7 million ($5.9 million), at the lower end of its A$6.3/$8.6 million estimate, with 70.3 percent of 111 lots sold. By value the auction was 71.8 percent sold.

With only one major sale remaining for the calendar year, art auction turnover in Australia was up from A$104.8 million ($79 million) to A$151.4 million ($129 million), with the Menzies Group and Sotheby’s showing the biggest gains. New auction houses Joel Fine Art and Deutscher and Hackett shared to a lesser degree.

In 2006, Christie’s halted auctions in Australia in the wake of its decision to concentrate resources on developing new markets. On Dec. 12 the house held its first London sale of modern and contemporary Australian art, including works by New Zealand and South African artists. The sale realized £3.3 million ($6.8 million) for 98 lots offered, one of Christie’s best results for an Australian art sale to date. Of these, 64, or 65 percent, were sold. The auction was stronger on a valuation basis, with 85 percent sold by value.

The change in Christie’s sale venue had no discernible effect on Australian demand; eight of the top ten lots were snapped up by Australian dealers and collectors.

At Sotheby’s, a Whitely Dove Flies Highest

The principal contribution at Sotheby’s sale came from a large, beige painting by Brett Whiteley of a dove nesting with its eggs, Rain, circa 1980, which made A$996,000 ($879,030) with buyer’s premium, the A$830,000 ($732,500) hammer price well above the A$400,000/500,000 estimate.

Whiteley, who died in 1992 from a heroin overdose, has become the most sought-after Australian artist after Sidney Nolan, with A$19.4 million ($17 million) spent on his work at auction in 2007.

The sale also benefited from the inclusion of four Nolan paintings that had been deaccessioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), which is holding the first retrospective of the artist’s pictures since 1979.

Since the works had been donated to the museum, the sale aroused considerable controversy, but they yielded a total of A$588,000 ($518,900), compared with the A$340,000/470,000 the AGNSW was hoping to raise.

Nolan’s Burke Lay Dying, 1950, was the star lot, selling for A$336,000 ($296,500) with buyer’s premium, its A$280,000 ($247,100) hammer price far outstripping the A$150,000 high estimate.

Some prices climbed well beyond estimates but were nonetheless close to the levels paid for them in the 1990s—for instance, a medley of topographical paintings of Angola and Brazil from the estate of the late Caroline Simpson, heir to the Fairfax media fortune based on the daily newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald.

A group of 127 lots of Aboriginal and tribal art (estimate: A$1.9 million/2.7 million) grossed A$2.3 million ($2 million), with 75 percent sold by lot, 88 percent by value. The sale results may have been driven partly by the prospect of droit de suite, a pending tax bill that is designed to help Aboriginal artists in particular.

Meanwhile, over at Bonhams & Goodman auctioneers a push for a bigger slice of the action was rewarded with a year’s total of A$12.4 million, up from A$4.8 million in 2006.

However, the house’s final sale of the year of Australian, international and Aboriginal art in Melbourne, on Nov. 19, grossed just A$2.8 million ($2.5 million), with only 36 percent of the 162 works on offer finding buyers.

The top lot at Christie’s London was a 1907 Impressionist painting by Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Sawing Timber. The work had not been seen in public for more than 100 years. Estimated at £250,000/350,000, it more than doubled expectations by selling for £731,700 ($1.5 million), the third-highest auction price for the artist.

A painting by South African artist Irma Stern (1894-1966), Congolese Woman, 1946, earned a record £569,300 ($1.16 million) from a South African dealer (estimate: £569,300). Alice Amongst Flowers, by Australian artist Charles Blackman (b. 1928), sold for £356,500 (estimate: £160,000/240,000), among the highest auction prices for the artist to date.

The artist’s Sleeping Schoolgirl, 1954, also drew attention, selling for £234,500 ($478,850), well above the estimated £70,000/100,000. Football Field, Soller, by Frank Jeffrey Edson Smart (b.1921), fell to an Australian collector for £120,500, ($246,061), well over the £50,000/70,000 estimate.

Nicholas Lambourn, head of the sale, noted that the auction included “many works not seen in public for a generation or more,” such as the Blackman and McCubbin paintings, adding that they attracted “fierce competition.”

Among postwar artists in the sale, Sidney Nolan’s Gully (Ned Kelly), 1964, fetched £264,500 (estimate: £120,000/160,000); and Brett Whitely’s Mrs. Christie, 1965, sold for £86,900 or $177,450. (estimate: £60,000/80,000).

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