ARTnewsletter Archive

Australian Auctions: A ‘Positive Message’ for the Market

While London and New York auctions are still on summer hiatus, the Australian auction market has been active, albeit at lower price points.

LONDON—While London and New York auctions are still on summer hiatus, the Australian auction market has been active, albeit at lower price points. Last week, 1,000 works of art were offered by four auction rooms, including Sotheby’s and Bonhams & Goodman, and the various auctions sold between 70 percent and 94 percent of the works offered.

Most closely watched was Sotheby’s, which held two sales in Melbourne August 24–25, bringing in a total of A$6.9 million ($5.8 million). The main sale of Australian art brought in A$5.7 million ($4.8 million)—exactly the same amount as sales this time last year, but short of the A$6.5 million low estimate.

Georgina Pemberton, Sotheby’s director and head of Australian art, said the house was pleased with the results, particularly the sell-through rates (77.4 percent by lot and 77 percent by value) and the depth of bidding. “We tailored the sale for the current market and assembled a very balanced spread of traditional and modern works,” she said.

Australian collector James Fairfax was selling several works, including Jeffrey Smart’s The Painted Factory, Tuscany, 1972, which sold to the Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, for A$870,000 ($726,807), above the A$600,000/800,000 estimate and near the record for the artist.

Sidney Nolan’s painting Burke and Wills Expedition, 1962—also consigned by Fairfax—just cleared the A$550,000 high estimate to bring A$552,000 ($463,860). Charles Blackman’s White Cat’s Garden at Night, 1969, sold for A$240,000 ($201,600), above the estimate of A$180,000/220,000.

The main surprises of the night were two modern British paintings by Ivon Hitchens (1893–1979) owned by Australian collectors Nigel and Norma Hawkins, which doubled and quadrupled estimates. The highest price paid was A$204,000 ($170,400) for the undated Flowers in a Blue Jug (estimate: A$70,000/90,000).

In a second sale, Sotheby’s offered the corporate art collection of property development company Austcorp, which fell victim to the economic crisis three months ago, when administrators were brought in to manage debts of A$550 million ($430 million). In this session, nearly everything was sold and several auction records were set. Pemberton said the sale was “a very positive message for the market and is evidence that there is a very healthy ongoing market for good contemporary Australian art.”

Among the Austcorp lots was Human, Human (Bust 5), 2002, a cloisonné enameled porcelain sculpture by the Chinese artist Ah Xian (b. 1960), which sold for A$180,000 ($151,088) on an estimate of A$80,000/100,000. The artist has been based in Australia since 1989, when, as a visitor, he was left stranded by the events of Tiananmen Square and decided to settle in the country.

Bonhams & Goodman’s August 25 sale in Melbourne realized A$3.3 million ($2.8 million), including buyer’s premium. Of 95 lots offered, 87 percent were sold. Among the highlights was Brett Whiteley’s oil on plywood Justine (Bondi), 1986, which sold for A$960,000 ($805,800), within the estimate of A$800,000/1.2 million.