Cost of living crisis? Not at this $10m art sale

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 21 September 2022

Cost of living pressures? Nowhere to be seen at Deutscher and Hackett’s auction last week. Collectors splashed out more than $10 million on art, fuelling five new artists’ records, and quieting fears about a post-lockdown market slump. The discretionary budgets of Australia’s wealthiest are clearly strong enough to fund travel and art, but there appears to be something else firing demand. Art collectors are growing in number.

“It’s a deeper collecting audience than it was a decade ago, so if one or two collectors are not participating, another one or two will be,” says Deutscher and Hackett’s co-executive director Chris Deutscher, who has been in the game for more than 40 years. “The market is deep enough to keep having strong sales even in a challenging economic environment … we come across new collectors at every auction,” he says.

Deutscher doesn’t know for sure why more art collectors are coming on to the scene, but believes that the company’s increased social media activity and advertising have helped. He also credits the respite from a frantic world that art can bring.

“It’s quite a happy environment for people to walk into an auction viewing,” says Deutscher. “One couple said to me, ‘it’s such a crazy time outside, it’s so lovely in here’.”

What counts in the end, though, for the auctioneer at least, is whether the art excites enough to keep collectors bidding.

The Deustcher and Hackett sale did, with many works soaring above their high estimates. Reflecting broad collector tastes, records were set for artists ranging from the 19th century to the present: from John Rae’s Panorama of Hyde Park, from c.1893, which made $40,000 on the hammer, to Jonny Niesche’s glowing abstract, Sweet Emily, 2020, which sold for $14,000 (hammer).

Records were also set for Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, Max Meldrum and Bruce Armstrong.

The auction opened with four lots from the prized collection of philanthropists Joan and Peter Clemenger, all on the secondary market of the first time. The first and smallest of the lots packed the greatest punch, centimetre for centimetre at least.

Brett Whiteley’s unflinching Self-Portrait, with virile thatch of real hair, rose $200,000 above its high estimate to sell for $550,000 (hammer). With buyer’s fees included (25 per cent inclusive of GST), the price came to $675,000, a huge outlay for the 30.5cm by oil painting. The Clemengers bought the painting in 1979 for $4400, without a thought for whether it would turn a profit in the long run. They bought it because they liked it, as they did each of the works auctioned last week. Good on them.

“The Brett Whiteley defied scale,” says Deutscher. “It screamed out in the room … it was such a potent image and attracted a lot of bidding.”

Deutscher would not say whether the painting had gone to a private collector or a public gallery, which makes Saleroom suspect the latter. We look forward to the announcement.

Also from the Clemenger collection, Fred Williams’ Lysterfield Landscape, 1968-69, sold at the upper end of its estimate, for $1.9 million (hammer), becoming the year’s most expensive artwork at auction. The painting is Williams at his best, with an intense, Zen-like beauty, and a subtle application of glazes that gives the work a silk-like sheen.