Art sales top $140m but it’s a buyers’ market now

Elizabeth Fortescue

The 2023 Australian art auction market largely defied rampant inflation, high interest rates and worsening global armed conflict, with sales to total $140 million by the time the last few bids are made at the end of next week.

This is roughly equal to last year’s sales total of $143.93 million, an unusual year in which art works from the collections of Cbus super fund and National Australia Bank were sold for a combined total of more than $20 million. But it’s still short of the pre-GFC record year of 2007, when $176 million in art was bought across the auction houses.

Those two corporate sales propelled auctioneer Deutscher and Hackett into top position among Australia’s auction houses in 2022, followed by arch rival Smith & Singer.

1. John Peter Russell’s Souvenir de Belle-Île, (Marianna Russell with Goats, Goulphar, Belle-Île), 1897, was the year’s top lot, selling for $4m at Deutscher and Hackett in August. 

Now, after 12 months during which those two biggest houses jostled for the right to sell the best works from prestige consignors, those positions are reversed. Smith & Singer has come out on top in 2023, with sales totalling $42.03 million, and Deutscher and Hackett on $34.12 million (not counting the house’s final 2023 auction, a timed sale with a high estimate of $261,300 that ends on December 12).

While buyers at the top end of the market remain virtually immune from rising interest rates on hefty mortgages, “mum and dad” investors trying to balance the family budget are beginning to desert the art market.

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This sector took to the art market in droves during COVID, looking to spend amounts of perhaps $5000 or $10,000 on a picture to match the sofa. This money was available because no one was travelling overseas during lockdowns.

2. Brett Whiteley’s Yellow, 1975, sold for $3.25 million at a private sale held by Smith & Singer. 

But those smaller buyers are now beginning to leave the market to people who could be classified as “connoisseurs”, who always remain interested in rare works of top quality by distinguished artists, and are prepared to pay for them.

3. The cover lot for this Smith & Singer auction was Fred Williams’ Masons Falls, 1981, which became the first Williams to breach the $3 million mark at auction.  

With prices starting to soften at the lower end of the market, insiders speculate that fewer works under about $50,000 will come on to the market because vendors will worry they will not get the right price for them.

These sentiments are among those expressed by a variety of market insiders and auction houses that Saleroom asked to comment on the year that was.

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First, the raw data on the Australian Art Sales Digest website gives general structure to the shape of the market. Those figures show that the year’s top price was $4 million (including buyer’s premium, as will all the prices in this article) for John Peter Russell’s Souvenir de Belle-Île, (Marianna Russell with Goats, Goulphar, Belle-Île), 1897. The work was sold by Deutscher and Hackett in August.

4. Sidney Nolan’s Early Morning Township, 1955, sold for $2.7 million at Deutscher and Hackett. 

Next came $3.25 million for Brett Whiteley’s Yellow, 1975, at Smith & Singer in October and $3.25 million for Fred Williams’ Masons Falls (Smith & Singer, August). Then it was $2.7 million for Sidney Nolan’s Early Morning Township, 1955 (D+H, August), and $2.2 million for Brett Whiteley’s South Coast After the Rain (D+H August).

There were no women in the list of top 10 prices. But Emily Kam Kngwarray, now the subject of an expansive survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (and scheduled to tour to Tate Modern in London in 2025), came in as the seventh most traded artist on the Australian art market.

5. Brett Whiteley’s South Coast After the Rain, 1984, sold for $2.2 million on an estimate of $1.5 million to $2 million. 

A total of $2.975 million was paid for Kngwarray art works during the year, putting her ahead of Russell Drysdale and John Brack but behind Brett Whiteley (topping the list of most traded, with $12 million), Sidney Nolan ($11.3 million), Fred Williams ($8.85 million), Charles Blackman ($5.54 million), John Peter Russell ($4.46 million), Arthur Boyd ($4.36 million) and John Olsen ($3 million).

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Record Australian art auction prices were achieved for many artists including Del Kathryn Barton ($527,727 for of Pink Planets). Other artists with new records included Joel Elenberg, the late sculptor whose beautiful work, Mask 1, 1978, fetched $1,135,227 through Smith & Singer. This was the top price ever paid for a work of sculpture at an Australian auction.

A major new auction record for popular Australian painter Criss Canning was set on December 5. At a private, single-lot auction by Smith & Singer, Native Flowers from Pomonal, 2001, fetched $231,250 on a far lower estimate of $80,000 to $100,000. The vendor was a private collection in Victoria.  

Other artists with new high prices to their names included Criss Canning, whose painting Native Flowers from Pomonol, 2001, went for $231,250 at a private Smith & Singer auction on Tuesday this week.

Carol Jerrems’ famously brooding image, Vale Street, 1975, fetched $175,000, the highest price paid for a photograph at auction in Australia.

Carol Jerrems’ powerful silver gelatin photograph, Vale Street, 1975, edition 2/9, signed and dated, fetched a whacking $175,000. 

Under the unofficial heading of “runaway prices” came Landscape, attributed to Wang Hui. Estimated at a meagre $3000 to $5000, Landscape sold for a whopping $393,600 through Bonhams in August. Look out for surprises at Bonhams’ sale of Asian Art on Thursday night.

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Likewise, Charles Rodius’s Miniature Portrait of Mrs Sophie Wiseman sold for $50,400 on a pre-sale estimate of just $600 to $1000. And Davidson Auctions sold Emanuel Phillips Fox’s A Beach in France, c.1909-11, for $304,000 which made the pre-sale estimate of $120,000 to $180,000 look very undercooked.

A Beach in France, c1909-11, by Emanuel Phillips Fox, smashed its estimate of $120,000 to $180,000 at Davidson Auctions. 

Likewise, Arthur Streeton’s The Yarra near Heidelberg, 1891, sold for $596,000 on an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000 at Davidson’s.

In all, 21,000 works were offered at auction in Australia this year, of which 66 per cent were sold. The average value of the works was $10,153.

Justin O’Brien’s Edgecliff Landscape c1947 trounced its pre-sale estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 and fetched $135,000 (including buyer’s premium) in Menzies’ auction on November 29. The vendor was a private Sydney collection.
 

Smith & Singer’s sales total was the highest since the company acquired Sotheby’s Australia in 2009, chairman Geoffrey Smith said.

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Quality and rarities on the market have performed well, but areas at the lower end of the market for works around $5000 are suffering.

“There is far less discretionary spending,” Smith said.

“The priorities have shifted for different households. The boom we saw during COVID as people bought (art works) at home, clicking on auctions on the internet, has subsided. And what we’re seeing is a return to connoisseurs and discerning collecting.”

Rich with Sydney Harbour atmosphere, Peter Kingston’s oil painting, Cool and Blue Down There (Sydney Ferries), 1998, performed extremely well at Menzies auction on November 29 in Sydney. The ANZ Art Collection was deaccessioning the work, which fetched $27,000 (including buyer’s premium) on a pre-sale estimate of just $6000 to $8000.  

A return to world travel following the boredom of lockdowns has also affected the market, “but the true collectors, whether it’s private individuals or public institutions, are just incredibly focused and discerning”, Smith said.

As for 2024, Smith said the market will “recalibrate to pre-COVID”.

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“If great works of art come forward they’ll be keenly sought after, provided the estimates are fair and reasonable,” he said.

Deutscher and Hackett’s Damian Hackett said the auction house had had a “very good year” with 18 record prices achieved for artists including six by Indigenous artists.

“We’ve turned over $86 million in 24 months and that’s something that no auction house has achieved over that period,” Hackett said, a little cheekily. “We had four works sell for over $2 million each.”

Men in a Boat, Shoalhaven River, c1981, by Arthur Boyd, measuring 121 x 181.5 cm, sold very well when it fetched $208,636 (including buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 at Menzies’ auction on November 29. The work was from a private NSW collection. 

Hackett believes the market is in for more of the same next year. Roger McIlroy, auctioneer and chairman of The Fine Art Group, Australia and New Zealand, agrees.

“I can’t see anything that’s going to particularly stop it at the moment,” McIlroy said.

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“I think the market will still concentrate quite heavily on the unique and the top end, the really top things, because there’s plenty of people around who want to buy the top things and in any cycle those things do very well.”

Unlike other commentators, McIlroy said there were few signs of the middle and lower ends of the market softening.

William (Jock) Frater’s delightful Untitled (Landscape) was snapped up for just $861 (including buyer’s premium) at Bonhams’ December 5 sale of works from the Wrobel Collection. It was estimated at $800 to $1200.  

“Davidsons had a fantastic sale the other day, and Leonard Joel (auction house) is still doing their thing,” he said.

“There are lots of players in the market now.”

Art consultant Annette Larkin believes there is a generational swing away from traditionalist works by the likes of Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman, in favour of more contemporary works by artists such as Shaun Gladwell.

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Gladwell’s photographic artwork, Approach to Mundi Mundi: Silverton Road/ Mundi Mundi [2], 2007, carried a pre-sale estimate of $10,000 to $15,000 but fetched a whopping $57,810 in Bonhams’ November sale.

Adam Sims of Sims Veldekis art consultants believes rising interest rates will affect the market for art works of about $20,000 or less.

Norah Gurdon (1881-1974) is a relatively little-known Australian artist whose painting, Rural landscape, fetched a very respectable $6150 (with buyer’s premium) against a pre-sale estimate of just $300 to $500 in Bonhams most recent (December 5) sale of works from the Wrobel Collection. 
 

For Menzies’ head of art, Brett Ballard, Indigenous works of art are “still incredibly well priced”. This included the work of many Indigenous artists who were using contemporary media.

“They haven’t quite had their day yet, so we’re looking at that,” Ballard said.

This signed and dated lithograph by British superstar artist David Hockney, titled Lithograph of Water Made of Thick and Thin Lines and Two Light Blue Washes, 1978-80, fetched $184,091 at Menzies’ auction on November 29. It was printed by Tyler Graphics, New York, and the vendor was a Sydney collector. The pre-sale estimate was $150,000 to $200,000.
 

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Margaret Olley is a hardy perennial, loved for her philanthropy and sturdy character as well as her art. This work in oil on board, Kilim Rug and Cornflowers II, 1997, was bought for $141,136 (including premium) at Menzies’ November 29 auction in Sydney.
 

Robert Owen’s eye-popping Blind Spot (from The Text of Light series), 2003, measures almost two metres square. Estimated at $35,000 to $40,000, the work fetched $67,500 at Menzies’ auction on November 29, setting a new Australian auction record for the artist
 

In one of the last art auctions of 2023, Deutscher and Hackett will offer a collection of 36 print artworks consigned by a descendant of the Bauhaus-trained artist Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. This work, by Paul Klee, titled Laternenfest, 1922, carries an estimate of $15,000 to $20,000. The timed sale ends on December 12.  

Deutscher and Hackett’s timed online sale, ending December 12, includes Desolation, Internment Camp, Orange, NSW, 1941. Other copies of this woodcut print on paper by Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack have been collected by numerous leading galleries including the National Gallery of Australia.  

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