Why you need to be in the room at auctions

Elizabeth Fortescue, Australian Financial Review, 29 November 2023

A missed call was a missed opportunity for a would-be buyer when Deutscher and Hackett staff couldn’t get them on the line in time to bid at the auction house’s final sale of the year in Sydney last week. It’s a danger that stalks remote bidders, whose numbers have increased since the pandemic.

“There was a person who was mad keen on the Bill Robinson [Birkdale Farm Construction with Australorps, 1982-83] and I tried and tried for as long as we could possibly hold it,” Deutscher and Hackett executive director Damian Hackett told Saleroom, “and he just didn’t connect until about a minute and a half after the work had sold, and then I had all this swearing via text at me.”

The tense moment at the sale ended with a painting being sold for a bargain price.

“I’m told to sell, and I will,” auctioneer Roger McIlroy warned the room.

With the lack of competition from the telephonically challenged bidder, McIlroy sold the work to a lucky purchaser for $250,000 (including buyer’s premium), much less than the work’s pre-sale estimate of $300,000 to $400,000.

“It’s the benefit of coming to an auction [in person],” McIlroy commented mid-sale.

It was a pertinent point, made on a night when a number of high-quality works by major artists created keen bidding in the room, on the phones and online.

Given the large numbers of artworks now being sold to people bidding online from their couch at home, or by phone to a representative of the auction house in the auction room, technology is key. Or rather, people picking up the phone is key.

“There’s one thing that we can’t control, and that is the person on the other end of the phone answering,” said Hackett. “Unfortunately, it happened a couple of times [during the sale in question on November 22] where the person had their phone in their pocket and didn’t hear it. One person was out at an event and just missed it.”

Birkdale Farm Construction with Australorps was from the estate of the late Alan Cardy, a Wallaby and property developer who also dabbled in horse flesh. Cardy played nine Rugby Tests for Australia in the 1960s, according to nine.com.au in an obituary following Cardy’s death in December 2021.

A brilliant natural athlete, Cardy casually became the Royal Australian Golf Club champion in 1982. He also owned a thoroughbred horse training facility called Lynton, near Goulburn, NSW. Last year, Lynton was purchased by Racing NSW for an undisclosed sum.

Cardy had eclectic tastes and knew what he liked, according to Hackett.

“He was an amazing guy and certainly accrued a really interesting collection,” Hackett said. “At one stage I was having a drink with him and I referred to him as an ‘old Wallaby’, and he berated me. He said, ‘Once you’re a Wallaby, you’re always a Wallaby’.”

Other works from Cardy’s estate that sold at D+H’s sale included a Howard Arkley picture in jangling, dayglo colours titled Physiognomy, 1987, and a gruff, granitic portrait by Albert Tucker titled Explorer, Evening, 1965.

Physiognomy fetched $150,000 on a pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. Explorer, Evening, estimated at $180,000 to $250,000, fetched $225,000.

The highest price of the night was for the cover lot, a painting from a private collection in Melbourne. Wig Shop Window, 1970, is an eccentric John Brack work: a vision of musk pink bouffant wigs.

Carrying a pre-sale estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, Wig Shop Window fetched $797,727. The painting had been “admired by all” in the pre-sale viewings in Sydney and Melbourne, McIlroy told the auction room.

Cressida Campbell’s meticulous and glowing Interior with Red Ginger, 1998, unsurprisingly performed well on the night. With a pre-sale estimate of $160,000 to $220,000, the unique colour woodblock print of a Japanese-influenced Australian home interior sold for $337,500.

The D+H auction included two discrete and interesting groups of works, one by the late recluse of Bribie Island, Ian Fairweather, and the other by Melbourne abstractionist Yvonne Audette.

The Fairweather pictures were from the collection of the late Perth art gallery owners Joe and Rose Skinner, who held sway on the cultural scene from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.

Making up lots five to 12, these pictures were indicative of the artist’s fascination with China and other Asian countries where he had spent time before retreating to Bribie Island, off the Queensland coast, living and painting in ramshackle circumstances until his death in 1974. 

Cornsifting, Soochow, 1945-47, in gouache and pencil on paper, was estimated at $80,000 to $120,000 and sold for $100,000. The lively Street in Soochow, 1948, fetched $87,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. Landscape, Soochow, 1945-47, gouache on paper, fetched $40,000 (estimate $15,000 to $20,000).

The Yvonne Audette works, consigned to the D+H auction by the artist herself, were lots 28 to 33 and encompassed the 1950s to the 1970s when the artist lived in New York, Milan and her present home near Melbourne.

The gorgeous Composition of Line and Colour, 1957-58, fetched $42,500 (estimate $30,000 to $40,000); The Spirit Laughs, 1964-65, fetched $112,500 ($80,000 to $120,000); Different Directions, 1964, fetched $150,000 ($120,000 to $160,000), and Space Symbols, 1976-78, fetched $137,500 ($60,000 to $80,000).

Hackett said he was personally thrilled that the public viewings of the Fairweathers and Audettes gave everyone, whether buying or not, the chance to see groups of works by such great Australian artists.

Australian contemporary art that performed well for D+H included Carol Jerrems’ photograph, Vale Street, 1975, depicting a semi-nude young woman flanked by two brooding young men.

Vale Street, edition 2/9, was estimated at $80,000 to $120,000 and fetched $175,000. According to Hackett, who said he also consulted Sydney photography specialist dealer Josef Lebovic, this was the highest price at auction for an Australian photograph.

The D+H sale saw a total of $6,195,273 paid for works of art (the amount includes buyer’s premium, as do all others in this report). Of the 63 lots, 84 per cent were sold