A little bird delivers record price for photographer

The market for Australian photography had a shot in the arm on Tuesday night when a “signature” piece by a celebrated Sydney-based photographer set a new artist auction record.

Petrina Hicks’ strange and compelling photograph, Shenae and Jade, 2005, sold at Deutscher and Hackett’s May 14 online sale for $68,750 (including buyer’s premium of 25 per cent, as will all sale prices below).

Shenae and Jade carried a pre-sale estimate of just $20,000 to $30,000. But the work received 11 bids that drove the price up to the record. The previous highest price paid at auction for a Hicks was $46,636 for a different print of Shenae and Jade. It sold through Deutscher and Hackett in 2021.

Shenae and Jade was printed in an edition of eight, and one those prints is in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. The print of Shenae and Jade that sold on Tuesday, number five in the edition, had been in a private collection in Berlin.

Hicks told Saleroom she knew the vendors. They were a couple who are long-term supporters of her work, buying a piece from each of her exhibitions. “They are German, but they did live in Sydney for decades and recently moved back to Germany,” Hicks said. “They’re really supportive. They still have some other pieces (of mine).”

Shenae and Jade is a hypnotic image of a budgie with its head in a child’s mouth.

Another example of the photograph was included in the exhibition Petrina Hicks, Bleached Gothic, at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2019-2020.

Hicks’ next major exhibition, as yet untitled, will open on 22 November at the Museum of Australian Photography in outer Melbourne. She will also have a show at the Perth Centre for Photography in August.

The Perth exhibition will be the first museum display of the artist’s digital photography, and as such will be a landmark event.

Hicks has always shot on film, but the exorbitant expense of processing the film internationally convinced her to invest in her first digital camera late last year. While the film was processed in the US, the printing has always been carried out in Sydney by master printer Warren Macris.

Hicks said that while it’s her habit to come to any photo shoot with a refined idea in mind, the use of digital technology will allow her to be more “experimental”.

As for the photo shoot of the young model and the budgie that resulted in the image Shenae and Jade, the decisive moment came at the end of the session when Hicks asked model Shenae to pop the budgie, later to become known as Jade, into her mouth.

“That was a taxidermied budgie,” Hicks said. “We just put a bit of, I think it was cling wrap, around the bird’s head.

“Budgies are quite inquisitive and often stick their heads in their owners’ mouths, so I was trying to replicate something like that.”

The artist said a common theme addressed in her art practice is human beings’ genetic connection to apes.

“A lot of literature and art is about humans trying to resolve their animal past,” Hicks said.

While Shenae and Jade proved a hit, the same can’t be said for the rest of Deutscher and Hackett’s Tuesday night sale. Of the 33 other artworks for sale, with a total of pre-sale estimates of $769,000 to $1,073,000 (before buyer’s premium of 25 per cent is added to the hammer price), almost half failed to receive a bid.

Total sales on the night amounted to just $527,125, including the premium. D+H director Damian Hackett said two more works sold after the sale.

Were people watching Jim Chalmers deliver his Budget speech, which was being made at the same time as the online auction? Or are collectors with more limited means feeling the economic pinch?

“I’m not sure,” Hackett said. He put it down to market “vagaries”.

“On any given night – we see it all the time – some things will not sell and on another night they will sell for more than we asked for today.”

As mentioned, the auction was a timed, online event where bidding is done by people sitting at their keyboards or on their mobile phones anywhere in the world. They connect with an automated system which takes their bids and extends the time allowable for further bidding where needed.

There were two works by Australian modernist Guy Grey-Smith in the auction, one of which performed exceptionally well against its estimates. Nude Study, 1947, in oil on canvas, sold for $25,000 on an estimate of just $3000 to $5000. The work received 26 bids – the highest number for any work on the night.

Grey-Smith’s other work in the auction was Mountain Quarry, Greenmount, 1953, which sold for $27,500 on an estimate of $18,000 to $25,000.

Winning the 2006 Wynne Prize for landscape painting at the Art Gallery of NSW didn’t help John Beard’s 2.5-metre wide painting, The Gap, 2005, which was estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 but received no bids.

Also failing to attract any bids were two paintings by Tim Maguire, Untitled 96U19, 1996, which had the highest estimate in the auction, and Untitled (Blue Serial No. 97U78), 1997.

Bidders were unable to see either of the Maguire paintings on the Invaluable auction platform, because of copyright restrictions which prevented Deutscher and Hackett from using the images online. Prospective buyers can always request the image to be sent to them privately, but Hackett said buyers may have been put off by this extra “complication”.

A beautiful and tiny (12.5 cm x 20.5 cm) landscape painting by celebrated English-born Australian artist, Tom Roberts, did very well on the night. Bidding was extended multiple times while collectors engaged in a keyboard duel for the piece, Sherbrooke Forest, c.1924.

The work sold for $20,000. It was sold through Christie’s in Melbourne in 1986 for $17,600 and through E. J. Ainger in Melbourne in 2018 for $10,800.

There was a bright moment on the night when a colourful but dignified portrait, A Proud Girl, 1956, by Dod Procter exceeded its estimate of $10,000 to $15,000 and bolted in at $35,000. Saleroom checked Australian Art Sales Digest but could find no other work by Procter recorded as having been sold through auction in this country. 

A Proud Girl was originally purchased from the Fine Art Society in London. Its vendor was a private collector from Sydney.

Procter was a British artist (1890-1972) who became a household name when Morning, her painting of a fisherman’s daughter, was awarded picture of the year at the 1927 Royal Academy exhibition. Morning is now in the collection of London’s Tate museum. Born Doris Margaret Shaw, Procter studied in England as well as in Paris at the famous Atelier Colarossi.

Two exquisite works by Australian modernist, Yvonne Audette, continued the strong auction trend for this Melbourne artist.

City Magic at Night, 1985, in mixed media on paper, fetched $10,625 on an estimate of $2000 to $4000. Audette’s Equinox, 1984, in pen, coloured ink and pastel on paper, fetched $5250 against an estimate of $2000 to $4000.