Australia’s best art auction result in 17 years

Deutscher and Hackett’s first big sale of the year only had 55 lots, and only 47 of them sold. But the quality of the works on offer and bullish bidding has delivered the best result at an Australian art auction in 17 years with total sales of $16,998,750 in Melbourne last week.

No other Australian art auction had achieved such a high total for a mixed vendor sale (as opposed to a single owner sale such as that of Reg Grundy) since the art market boom year of 2007, when giddy buyers dropped $22.45 million at Sotheby’s sale of Important Australian art including works from the Qantas collection.

The top price achieved on the night was a cool $4 million for a painting by an Australian artist who was friends with legendary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. (The $4 million includes 25 per cent buyer’s premium, as do all prices quoted in this article.)

John Peter Russell is the man who knew Van Gogh, having lived in Europe for much of his life. Russell’s dazzling landscape, Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Île-en-Mer, c.1905, was consigned to the auction by its London owner.

Adding to the painting’s prestige is its history. In 2016-2017, it hung in one of the hallowed salons of the National Gallery, London as part of an exhibition called Australia’s Impressionists.

In the lead-up to the exhibition, National Gallery, London director Gabriele Finaldi wrote to the picture’s then owner, seeking to borrow it for the show: “In its complex layering of intense, contrasting colour, veiled with the dominant key of electric blue, we see Russell in full force as a colourist, exploring the dense chromatic modulations of shadow.”

Who could refuse?

Several unsuccessful bidders were left “heartbroken” by missing out on the gloriously coloured painting, Hackett said.

“When there’s that sort of money involved, when you’re putting up your hand for $2.8 million or $3 million for a painting and don’t get it, it’s a hard one to take,” he said.

For the successful bidder, however, it was a different story. They texted Hackett that they were “beyond thrilled” to be the new owner of Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Île-en-Mer. The painting depicts Port-Goulphar on Belle-Île in France, where Russell – having inherited money – painted and raised a family before returning to Sydney where he died in 1930.

In all, 55 lots were offered in the D+H sale, and 47 were sold. This made the sale result all the more remarkable, because 55 lots is not a high number for a sale like this.

Second in the price rankings on the night was Brett Whiteley’s languorous landscape, The Wren, 1978, which snapped at John Peter Russell’s heels and fetched $3,750,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $2 million to $3 million.

The Whiteley vendor was the celebrated advertising executive Peter Clemenger AO, in whose home the yellow-hued picture hung.

Discussing the Whiteley in the lead-up to the auction, Clemenger had told Saleroom: “I hope it sells”. He needn’t have worried.

A second Whiteley came in at third most expensive painting. Bather on the Sand, 1975-76, fetched $1,937,500 against an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million.

Fourth highest was Charles Blackman’s Which Way, Which Way?, 1956, which sold for $1,250,000 on an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million. The canvas was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s hallucinatory tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Blackman illustrated a 1982 Australian publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Which Way, Which Way? was illustrated in it. The work depicts a moment in the story when Alice grows supernaturally tall.

Which Way, Which Way? hung at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2006, a distinction which would have added to its buyer appeal.

Just one new artist auction record was set on the night. Daphne Mayo’s copper sculpture, Two Jolly Sailormen, c.1942, depicts American sailors on a rowdy night out. Measuring 29 cm high, the work fetched $60,000.

Mayo was once engaged to be married to the great Australian artist Lloyd Rees, although no marriage between them eventuated.

Rees’s work was also represented in the sale. Stables at Parramatta, 1924, a sweet picture featuring dreamy light and peaceful horses, fetched $12,500 against an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000.

Stables at Parramatta was, as auctioneer Scott Livesey said, “a nice little buy”.

One of the most beautiful works in the sale was Anemones, 1916, a painting in oil on cardboard by popular modernist Margaret Preston. Tucked away in a private collection since it was painted, Anemones sold for $625,000 – the artist’s equal highest auction price.

Auctioneer Roger McIlroy started the sale off, with Scott Livesey taking over half way through and keeping up the brisk pace to the end.

Hackett said the auction room was at its fullest since the start of Covid. Additionally, there was action online and on the phones.

A smattering of international works in the sale included French artist Henri Martin’s L’Église de Labastide-du-Vert, c.1920s, which went for $231,250. Bernard Buffet (also French) found favour when his work, Hurrah!! Portovenere!, 1977, sold for $437,500.

“When we do have international artworks, it exposes the Australian art world to international eyes,” Hackett said.

“When people have their search engines alerted to the fact that we had a Rodin or Henri Martin, they will be alerted and will generally have a look through the catalogue.”

Half a dozen works found new homes overseas. Hackett wasn’t saying which ones, but various pieces of art were headed off to buyers based in the UK, the US, Europe and Asia.

Hackett said the sale’s success was simply down to the “stellar quality” of the works on offer.

“We had this amazing start to the consignment period and it just kept coming,” he said.

“With that, we were able to be quite selective. Knowing we had a high-quality foundation, we could try to craft the auction into a really serious event.”

One lovely success story was Jane Sutherland’s Portrait of the Artist’s Cousin, c1895. Estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, the affectionate work fetched $81,250. In 1977 the same picture was sold through Leonard Joel in Melbourne for just $450.