Whiteley, Brack, Perceval. At 96, this art collector is farewelling his favourite works

Walking through Peter Clemenger’s house is like visiting a gallery. “This was the first Whiteley we bought,” he says, pointing towards a deceptively simple work in black ink. “We didn’t know much about him and we were learning as we went along.”

In the short tour, we pass a small and bright Hockney, a work by John Olsen, a portrait of Sidney Nolan painted by Albert Tucker. As we pass the staircase, the philanthropist and former ad man indicates upstairs, where we can just glimpse a selection of works by John Brack.

On one wall, however, a faint white rectangle is just visible – the ghost of where a painting once hung. The Clemenger collection is impressive, but smaller than it used to be.

Next week, in the third and final of a series of auctions, Peter Clemenger will sell some of the most significant paintings from the collection that he spent decades building together with his wife Joan.

“Why now?” he reflects. “Well, because I’m getting old,” he says with a small laugh. “And I need to leave my affairs in reasonable shape. I’m 96. My wife died two years ago. She was 90. And the paintings were not paintings that we could hand down to our children.”

Before Joan died, she and Peter sat down and decided on the list of paintings to sell together. “We’ve got some other paintings that we’re not selling that the children will get. But the 11 paintings that we decided to sell were too big, in most cases, for them to have – and too important.”

The previous lots included works by Jeffrey Smart and Fred Williams, and collectively netted over $8 million. Under the hammer this time are three works, and arguably the best have been saved for last. There’s No More (1984) by John Brack, one of a series centred on letters balanced on colourful pencils (estimate $800,000-$1 million), The Splash (1956), one of John Perceval’s famed Williamstown series (estimate $400,000-$600,000), and The Wren (1978) by Brett Whiteley, bought by the couple the same year it was painted (estimate $2 million to $3 million).

In choosing which works to buy, the Clemengers’ approach was simple: “We either like the paintings or we don’t – and in most cases, our decisions were perfect for the two of us.” The pair also never disagreed on which works they were drawn to. “We didn’t ever have a problem of an argument or debate about whether to buy something or not,” he says with a laugh. “We were lucky.”

For a couple to be so on the same page about art is rare, says Stuart Purves, second-generation owner of Australian Galleries, where the Clemengers bought many of their pieces. “Usually some husbands and wives take it in turn, some have to agree – and some they buy it anyway.”

For Peter and Joan, however: “I wouldn’t call them collectors in the sense that they went out to actually amass a collection – they went out to find things that they liked, and they wanted to live with. And it was always a bit of a team effort.”

The Splash was part of the gallery’s first solo collections. “John Perceval – really, he managed to make a subject out of nothing. Williamstown was a working man’s area at that stage – rough old bluestone edges, broken-down jetties, broken-down boats. But like Jeffrey Smart did in his later period, he brought that foreground to us and made it into a beautiful thing.”

The Clemengers’ contribution to Australian arts and culture extends far beyond their collection. Peter was the founder of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. As a couple, they established the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, which ran from 1993 to 2009, and they have supported various arts organisations, including the Melbourne Theatre Company, the NGV, and The Australian Ballet. In 2015, they both received Australia Day honours for their support of the visual and performing arts and their philanthropic work.

“Neither of us came into this with a background in the arts,” says Clemenger. “It’s added a great dimension to our lives.”

The Wren had been displayed in the couple’s front room since the year they bought it – the space looks quite different with it gone. Letting go of the paintings has been “quite difficult”, Clemenger shares.

“Particularly some of the paintings that we particularly loved. I mean, there was the Whiteley self-portrait, just a small painting with his hair – there’s no other painting in the world like it. That was hard to get rid of. And the Jeffrey Smart painting of Germaine Greer – because we knew Jeffrey very well – was also tough to sell. But we decided we needed to do so.“

“Selling the paintings has been a difficult decision, but I believe it’s entirely the correct decision,” he says. “We’ve enjoyed the paintings in this house for 40 years. Somebody else can enjoy them hopefully for 40 years.”

The Melbourne viewing of Significant Works from the Collection of Joan and Peter Clemenger runs from April 18-23 at Deutscher and Hackett, before the auction on April 24.