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Record $5M Nolan Painting Leads Menzies Australian-Art Auction

During the buoyant auction of Australian aboriginal and international fine art held by Menzies Fine Art Auctioneers in its salerooms in Sydney, Australia, on March 25, a new auction record of A$5.4 million ($4.9 million) was set for any Australian artwork.

SYDNEY—During the buoyant auction of Australian aboriginal and international fine art held by Menzies Fine Art Auctioneers in its salerooms in Sydney, Australia, on March 25, a new auction record of A$5.4million ($4.9 million) was set for any Australian artwork.

First-Class Marksman, 1946, a ripolin enamel on composition board measuring 36 by 48 inches, was painted by Australia’s most acclaimed artist, Sidney Nolan (1917–46). It is part of the artist’s famous series of “Kelly paintings,” based on the exploits of 19th-century bandit and folk hero Ned Kelly. The work shows Kelly in his black welded metal armor, pointing a rifle into the landscape. Earlier this year, auction-house researchers identified it as the “missing” 20th painting from the series, which had been painted in 1946 and first exhibited at the Velasquez Gallery, Melbourne, in 1948.

Bidding opened at the low estimate of A$3million ($2.7 million), and foundered there for several minutes. However, as a packed and animated room looked on, two phone bidders then slowly took the lot to its hammer price of A$4.5million ($4.1million). The price eclipsed the previous record of A$3.5million ($3million)—set in June 2007 at Deutscher-Menzies, Sydney, by Brett Whiteley’s sexually charged landscape The Olgas for Ernest Giles, 1985—by a large margin.

First-Class Marksman had last been sold at auction in August 1989 at Sotheby’s in Melbourne, where it brought in A$835,000 ($626,250) as a late added lot submitted by the Sir Sidney Nolan Trust; at that time, no major claims were made about its history or status.

The Menzies auction realized a total of A$14.68million ($13.4million) for 215 lots offered. Of the total, 162 lots, or 75 percent, were sold; by value the sell-through rate was 84 percent. The total exceeded the estimate of A$12.65million/14.3million. Menzies is the only major Australian auction house that holds such a sale at this time of year. The others do not sell until late April or May.

This was the first sale since last November’s takeover of the Sotheby’s brand in Australia by local auctioneer Tim Goodman through a franchise arrangement with the global auction house (ANL, 10/6/09). The day of the auction, the new Sotheby’s Australia laid off 12 members of its staff as part of a streamlining of its operations. It had also lost out in competition for the consignment of a A$10million ($9.1million) collection of Old Masters, antiquities and taxidermy assembled by Perth property developer Warren Anderson.

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