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Australian Art Scores Record Prices Despite Drop in Volume

For the first time since the subprime crisis took hold, sold-by-lot rates and prices fell markedly at the spring round of art auctions here August 25–28.

MELBOURNE—For the first time since the subprime crisis took hold, sold-by-lot rates and prices fell markedly at the spring round of art auctions here August 25–28.

Auction house officials pointed to several records as a sign of the market’s health, but many buyers and dealers were clearly holding back. Australian art consultant Ian Rogers said several of his clients were waiting for a bigger correction in the market before they reenter it.

Sotheby’s sale of Australian art on August 25–26 realized A$6.7 million ($5.9 million), including buyers’ premium, far under the presale estimate of A$10.7 million/14 million. A total of 114 of the 228 lots offered sold, and the auction was 54.1 percent sold by value.

Bonhams & Goodman’s sale of Australian fine art on August 26, which carried a presale estimate of A$7.2 million/10 million, totaled A$5 million ($4.3 million), with 46, or 52 percent, of the 89 lots sold. By value the auction was 68 percent sold.

Deutscher and Hackett’s fine-art auction of 268 lots on August 27–28 realized A$5.8 million ($4.9 million), and was 74 percent sold by lot, 73 percent by value. The presale estimate was A$6.8 million/8 million.

The Deutscher auction was the healthiest of the season’s sales, but the total result was achieved only with the overnight private sale of its star lot, The Boucher Nude, 1957, by Australian artist John Brack (1920–1999), to Stuart Purves, director of Australian Galleries, Sydney and Melbourne, for A$1.5 million ($1.3 million) for a client.

The auction total was also boosted by healthy demand for lower-priced lots on the second day of the sale. The strong attendance at the latter part of the sale was widely attributed to¬ bargain-hunting following media coverage of the market setback.

Major Work Misses the Mark at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s result was marred by the failure of Moulting Lagoon and Great Oyster Bay, from Pine Hill, an oil-on-canvas landscape of Tasmania painted in the late 1830s by Anglo-Australian artist John Glover (1767–1849). The work had been estimated at A$1.8 million/2.2 million; bidding opened at A$1.5 million ($1.3 million) and closed at A$1.6 million ($1.4 million).

At Sotheby’s, a new record was set for Russell Drysdale when Rocky McCormack, a 1962–63 portrait of a Riverina farmer, sold for A$1.9 million ($1.7 million). The winning bid—A$1.57 million before premium—was below the A$1.8 million/2.2 million estimate, but the seller, collector Fraser Hopkins, had also acquired the painting at a discount in 1996, when he acquired it for A$250,000 against a low estimate of A$350,000, also at Sotheby’s. The sole round of applause at the sale was for Charles Conder’s The Fatal Colors, 1888, which sold to Melbourne dealer Lauraine Diggins for A$702,000 ($608,557) against an estimate of A$250,000/$350,000.

Georgina Pemberton, Sotheby’s head of Australian paintings, said that the results were “in line with our expectations given the current economic climate. It is now a less speculative market and this provides opportunities for art lovers to build their collections.”

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