From Streeton to Whiteley: $9 million of art heading to auction

Kerrie O'Brien, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 2022

An extraordinary collection of Australian art, including works by Arthur Streeton, Sidney Nolan, Margaret Preston and Brett Whiteley, is about to go to auction with an estimated value of $9 million.

It’s being sold by the Construction and Building Unions Superannuation (Cbus), one of Australia’s largest industry superannuation funds, and was put together by prominent art dealer and collector Dr Joseph Brown.

It’s like a who’s who of the best in Australian art, says Damian Hackett, executive director of Deutscher and Hackett, the auction house responsible for the sale.

“You can see that [Brown] had a hit list and he filled it; pretty much everyone is on that hit list,” Hackett says. “He looked at works that were in public institutions and has bought similar works, he also had an inkling about women artists and the artists that do seem to be coming into vogue after decades and decades. There’s plenty of terrific things in this collection.”

Works by colonial painters Eugene Von Guerard and William Piguenit, impressionists Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin, and modernists such as Margaret Preston and Clarice Beckett are part of the collection, as are pieces by Russell Drysdale, Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan.

Contemporary works by Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen and Rosalie Gascoigne feature alongside pieces by Indigenous artists Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Anatjari Tjakamarra, Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi and Pansy Napangardi.

Brown and Professor Bernard Smith had approached Cbus with the idea of buying a significant collection of Australian art in the late 1980s, arguing it was undervalued and that overseas buyers were buying major works they believed should stay in the country. In 1990, the organisation decided to invest up to $2 million in Aboriginal, colonial and representative art of the 20th century with Brown as the adviser. It closed to new acquisitions in 2007, at which time the value of the collection of 310 works had increased five-fold.

One highlight cited by Hackett is Balmain and Leichhardt, from Holtermann’s Tower, a 1920s Arthur Streeton painting of Sydney Harbour, with an estimate of $250,000-$300,000. “It depicts an industrial scene, not the cliched city view – Balls Head Reserve with the coal loaders, looking out to Balmain and Leichhardt.”

Another is a Godfrey Miller picture from the 1950s, which he says is remarkable in its composition and its execution. “Miller had studied to be an architect, that really shows in his work. He worked making these incredible idiosyncratic images,” Hackett says, adding that the piece has been in pretty much every important show whenever Miller has been mentioned.