The small catalogue of only 80 artworks offered by Sotheby’s Australia on Tuesday night at their May 7 Important Australian and International Art auction held in Sydney was in keeping with the usual Sotheby’s “less is more” strategy which has worked well for the auction house before.
A final total of $8,093,400 including buyer's premium (IBP), or 86% by value and 70% by volume was an encouraging results for Sotheby’s who catered to the tastes of what is currently a conservative market with a catalogue that included a good range of more classical European-style paintings by artists such as Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Rupert Bunny and Conrad Martens. After the recent Streeton record set by Deutscher Hackett, Sotheby's would have gone into this sale relatively confident that it would be a success.
A bidding war for lot 4, a large varnish on acrylic on canvas painting by Australian artist Dale Frank, got the sale off to a good start. Estimated to fetch $18,000- $22,000, Frank’s Remember Fortune Cookie Road 8. In our current uncertainty the present is the only reality and the only certainty. No one would talk if they knew how often others misunderstood them. Forest Hill, 2004 sold for $45,600. Recent successful showings at The Armory Show in New York and Volta NY are likely to have contributed to the increased desirability of Frank’s work.
Also exceeding its estimate was lot 11, a rare painting by Alexander Schramm who was the leading oil painter in the colony of South Australia during the mid nineteenth century. The 49.5 X 67.7CM oil on canvas which depicts a South Australian Aboriginal campsite made $588,000 against an estimate of $300,000-$400,000.
Next on the block was a small but spectacular painting by the celebrated Australian Impressionist Frederick McCubbin 1855-1917. Titled Whisperings in Wattle Boughs, the oil on canvas painted in 1886 was the highlight of the sale and achieved a final price of $1,200,000 against an estimate of $1,000,000-$1,200,000.
Continuing the good run for the work of Australian impressionists was a beautiful painting of two women by Rupert Bunny titled Devideuses Winding a Skein which produced a final price of $348,000 against an estimate of $250,000-$350,000.
Coming in at lot 20 was Arthur Boyd’s Dry Creek Bed, Alice Springs. Chosen as the cover lot, the large painting of Aboriginal children playing in a dry creek bed made the low estimate of $1,000,000 for a final price of $1,200,000.
Upwey 1965, a landscape painting by the usually popular Fred Williams estimated to sell for $300,000-$400,000, was one of the surprise failures of the sale. Also failing to sell was William’s Summer Snow at Perisher (estimate $750,000 - $850,000) which was last sold by Menzies Art Brands in 2009 for a hammer price of $700,000 against an estimate of $680,000 - 840,000.
The recent international interest in the work of Grosvenor School printmakers Ethel Spowers and Sybil Andrews led to prices well above estimate for the three prints offered by Sotheby’s. Andrews’ Bathers linocut was the most successful of the three prints selling for $72,000 against an estimate of $8,000-$12,000. The two Spowers prints fetched $32,400 and $26,400 respectively against the same estimate of $8,000-$12,000.
Unable to convince buyers to part with their money for major works by Russell Drysdale, Fred Williams, Peter Booth, Charles Blackman and Albert Tucker, the focus on early European-style works proved the right decision for Sotheby’s. Had Sotheby’s focused more on the work of modern Australian artists instead of the likes of by McCubbin, Streeton, Bunny and Schramm, the results would likely have been very different.