Hang It All - Luxury Travel Magazine

Hang It All

By: Elizabeth Sarks, Issue 16 – Spring 2003
(Australian art market)


The Australian art market has come of age and its growth over the past decade has been meteoric. There is more activity on the art scene than ever before and art is no longer just for the connoisseur. The barriers are down and art is more accessible. It is now regarded as a respectable form of investment and the art market is well-charted, however there is still a risk element to attract the gambler. Today there are more exhibitions, auctions and educational programs, and art is aggressively marketed by public relations experts. Exhibition openings, auctions and associated charity functions have all the glitz and glamour of a society event and have become fixtures on the social calendar. The biggest changes are noticeable in the art auction scene. In the past decade, proceeds from pictures alone have increased from $28 million in 1992 to $70 million last year. The record for an Australian painting sold at auction stands at $2.31 million for Frederick McCubbin’s Bush Idyll, sold in 1998. Aside from increased activity, the profile of the art buyer has also changed. A generation ago, dealers and the occasional collector frequented auction houses. Private buyers, who previously purchased art through dealers and art galleries, have been wooed into the auction rooms as auction houses have demystified the process of buying art.

The most significant new addition to the auction scene is the cashed up, savvy 25 to 40-year-old who is quite comfortable buying art that is contemporary, socially or politically relevant and, at the same time, enhances their social status and boosts their investment portfolio. Australia still has many serious collectors, some of whom have gone on to become generous benefactors of public art galleries, including James Fairfax, John Schaeffer, Richard and Jeannie Pratt, and the artist Margaret Olley. Public art institutions and corporate collectors also have a significant presence in the art scene. Armed with substantial funds and backed up by expert knowledge, they are serious players. If works of art are of national significance and fit in with their collection, these institutions represent serious buying power. With the growth of self-managed super funds, more art is being bought as alternative investments by trustees – the building industry superannuation fund Cbus holds a major art collection among its assets.

Interest in colonial and traditional works by artists such as John Glover, Hans Heysen and Norman Lindsay – who were all the rage during the art boom of the late 1980s – has waned in favour of works by the Australian modernists of the 50s and 60s. An Arthur Boyd from his Bride series, a Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly or a Charles Blackman Schoolgirl are highly desirable and very expensive. The explosion of the Aboriginal art market has also been spectacular. Sales at auction have escalated from $157,000 in 1992 to more than $6 million a decade later and this market is serviced by a strong international contingent with a large proportion of works sold in Australia ending up in Europe and America. Rover Thomas holds the record for the highest price paid at auction in Australia – $778,750 for All That Big Rain Coming on the Top Side. Emily Kngwarreye is another auction favourite with her Spring Celebration recently fetching $463,000.

As auction houses experience difficulty in acquiring quality stock to sell and buyers are priced out of the modernist market, interest in contemporary art has intensified. Contemporary art practice is so much more varied than traditional art. Buyers have embraced photography as an area of collecting and don’t shy away from collecting sculpture, conceptual and installation art – both notoriously difficult to display and at times hard to access. Auction darlings of the moment are Patricia Piccinini, Tracey Moffatt, Bill Henson, Tim Maguire and John Kelly. Perennial auction favourites Margaret Olley, Bill Robinson, Jeffrey Smart, Garry Shead and Tim Storrier continue to appreciate with huge profits achieved by those who purchased their work early in their careers.

There is constant rivalry between auction houses. Up until about a decade ago, the two international firms – Christie’s and Sotheby’s – dominated the auction scene with smaller local firms working alongside. Recently there has been a flurry of takeovers. Rod Menzies took over James R Lawson to become Lawson Menzies, Andrew Shapiro took over the Philips Sydney office and gave birth to Shapiro Auctioneers, and Bonhams of London joined forces with Goodmans of Double Bay. The daring new partnership of Deutscher-Menzies has seen them overtake all other auction houses in 2003. There has also been a definite move to demystify the art buying process, especially on the auction circuit. Many auction houses run educational programs for collectors and art lovers with in-house staff or visiting experts passing on valuable information. There are now many more major art auctions held each year. Auction houses are successfully creating auction seasons by scheduling sales in a common week; this month and next, there is a spate of summer auctions (see box).

Major auction sales are always accompanied by beautifully produced catalogues with high-quality illustrations and well-documented background to the art works and artists. The professional art adviser has become a key player in the auction game. Consultants and gallery owners give advice on what to buy and sell, how to maintain and display artworks, and they often bid on behalf of their client or chaperone them to the auction. As art strives to become recognised as a respectable form of investment, auction prices have been recorded and analysed. Roger Dedman has been compiling his Art Market Index since 1975, charting the performance of Australia’s top 100 artists at auction against the retail price index. John Furphy has recorded and analysed Australian auction prices from 1992 in his Australian Art Sales Digest. So if you’re in Melbourne or Sydney between now and the end of the year, experience the excitement of an art auction. Works for sale will be on view during the week prior to the auctions.

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