Extracted from Australian Art Sales Digest | David Hulme & Brigitte Banziger
We all love a good home contents auction, but “Fairwater” in Point Piper is not just any old home, but the ultimate Sydney harbour front mansion on 11,000 m2 of manicured grounds.
The largest privately-held property on Sydney harbour was owned by the Fairfax publishing dynasty for over 100 years. Last year, it was sold for $100 million, the highest price ever for an Australian residential property, to new money, tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes.
Bonhams was entrusted with selling 376 family heirlooms from the collection of Sir Warwick and Lady Fairfax, once housed in “Fairwater” and other Fairfax residences, “Barford” in Bellevue Hill, “Serene House” in Bondi and the legendary penthouse atop the Pierre Hotel in New York, Lady Fairfax’ abode from 1993 to 1999. Not surprisingly, the saleroom in Queen Street Woollahra attracted well over 150 attendees on Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be a 7-hour auction marathon, with two auctioneers sharing the load, Bonhams Australia director Merryn Schriever and Edward Wilkinson, executive director of Bonhams Hong Kong and flown in specially for the occasion.
I shouldn’t perhaps be too judgemental, but felt a little robbed from not being able to see the international artworks from the collection, among them five sculptures by Auguste Rodin as well as several artworks by Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas, Maurice Utrillo, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Marie Laurencin; they were consigned to a number of Bonhams’ sales in London, rather than being offered here in Australia, which is not really surprising.
However, of highlights in Australian art there were a few, including a highly significant portrait by William Dobell of Joshua Smith, a Wynne Prize winning landscape by Hans Heysen, a monumental Fijian scene by Ray Crooke and a key painting from 1961 by Charles Blackman from an important early London exhibition of his work, with 82 art lots in total among the vast array of assorted furniture, collectables, porcelain, mirrors, clocks and any number of other decorative items.
Art lots were scattered through the sale, and the first offering was a typically beautiful small bronze sculpture Salome by Bertram Mackennal (Lot 11 ), with estimates of $15,000-25,000, selling at the high estimate.
A surprising number of the art lots offered were of a dark and gloomy colour palette, including 17 works by considerably out of favour artist Francis Lymburner. Margaret Preston’s Coral Flowers (Lot 12 ) however was a colourful highlight. This unusually large multicoloured offering of Australian native flowers in a bowl sold right on its low estimate price of $30,000 hammer price on $30,000-50,000 hopes.
There were four of Leonard French’s kaleidoscopic paintings offered. Another artist largely out of favour with today’s collectors, nonetheless the first one, Colour Sketch for the Seventh Day, 1964 (Lot 13 ), did sell well at $19,000 hp mid-way through its $15,000-25,000 expectations. However, Seventh Day of Genesis, 1964 (Lot 62 ) estimated at $12,000-18,000 failed to sell, as did The Crusader, 1961 (Lot 189 ), with estimates of $40,000-60,000.
One of the art highlights was The Meeting by Charles Blackman (Lot 31 ) purchased from the Matthiesen Gallery in London in 1961, and sure to attract keen interest from serious Blackman aficionados, resulting in a fierce and sustained bidding. Interest in Blackman at auction is at a high, and its $250,000-350,000 estimates were verified with a healthy $320,000 hp.
Three modest Rupert Bunny studies (lot 36, lot 37, lot 38) estimated all at $5,000-7,000 were eagerly sought. While lot 36 and 37 each sold at $11,000, the best of them, The Farmhouse, 1925 (Lot 38 ) was competed strongly up to $15,000 hp. However, The Wrath of Apollo, c 1918 (Lot 78 ) did not stir bidders and was simply ignored attracting no bids on the $30,000-50,000 expectations.
Collectors seem unafraid these days to buy the largest of paintings, and where once the size to some extent may have impacted interest, this trend appears to have been bucked of late. The sale of Ray Crooke’s The Morning Catch, Fiji Island, 1969-71 (Lot 50 ) is an excellent case in point, helpfully created in 3 panels making it decidedly more manageable. If sold at its high estimate of $200,000, this 4.8 metre long monumental painting was going to break the auction record for Ray Crooke, which was set by Thursday Island, 1958, when sold in May 2017 for $170,800 incl. buyer’s premium. The Morning Catch ended up almost doubling its high estimate, selling for a massive $360,000 hp, and $439,200 incl. bp.
A dark and gloomy painting Migratory Birds, 1958 by Clifton Pugh (Lot 60 ) was offered at – even for Pugh – very conservative estimates for a very large early work from this important artist of just $6,000-9,000. Pugh’s work tends to be somewhat hit and miss in the auction room these days, with his earliest, perhaps more gritty compositions of most interest to collectors. Migratory Birds secured just the right amount of interest and soared significantly above its low hopes to $30,000 hp.
Sadly, and probably due to condition problems, John Passmore’s two abstract compositions from 1956 (lot 101, lot 102), were left unsold on expectations of $15,000-20,000 each.
Another 1960s Charles Blackman In Blue Daylight (Lot 103 ), purchased in Australia from South Yarra Galleries in March 1964, sold for $200,000, or $20,000 above the low estimate of $180,000.
Keeping up the theme of early works by artists purchased by Sir Warwick including Charles Blackman, Clifton Pugh, Justin O’Brien, Victor O’Connor, David Strachan, Patrick Hockey and Judy Cassab: Robert Juniper created Baandee Summer (Lot 158 ) in 1958, when he was 28, and it clearly found favour with its early date as well as provenance, selling for $27,000 hp on hopes of $20,000-30,000.
Perhaps a sign of the buying times, just two women were represented in the collection, Margaret Preston and another early depiction of flowers by Judy Cassab, Strelitzias, 1955 (Lot 172 ), estimated at a very modest $800-1,200, selling ultimately for $4,800 hp.
Michael Kmit is yet another artist out of favour in today’s art market, and perhaps this was reflected in the extremely conservative $1,000-2,000 estimates for La Scala, 1955 (Lot 173 ). Unsurprisingly, it sold for more than $2,000, in fact 7 times more for a $14,000 hammer price.
There was a sudden air of excitement in the room when auctioneer Merryn Schriever announced William Dobell’s Study for Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith), 1943 (Lot 215 ), estimated at $200,000-300,000.
The history of the main painting would be known to most Australians: Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith) was the 1943 Archibald Prize winner which turned into an enormous public controversy over what constitutes a portrait, ending up in a famous court case. In 1958, the actual painting was all but destroyed in a fire. Dr. Candice Bruce, notably among the many attendees at the sale, tells the story in her insightful catalogue essay.
In other words, this small study is the closest surviving image of this most famous of paintings. As we expected, bidding was strong, and all the action was in the room. Given Sotheby’s sale of The Dead Landlord, 1936, last month for a $ 1 million hammer price and an auction record for Dobell, as well as the sale of Woman in Restaurant, 1934, sold in April this year also at Sotheby’s for $770,000 hp, the second highest price at auction for Dobell, we were prepared for some fireworks with the third great Dobell painting to appear at auction this year.
Perhaps an underbidder on one or both of the previous paintings by Dobell sold at Sotheby’s has finally had their appetite sated with the purchase of this highly significant painting, and perhaps it was worth waiting for too. Geoffrey Smith, chairman of Sotheby’s Australia, was able to secure the work for a private client for $750,000 hp, now the third highest price paid at auction for a work by William Dobell.
An unusual and highly skilled portrait of Warwick Fairfax from 1941 (Lot 216 ) by Sali Herman was estimated at $30,000-50,000, and sold at its low estimate, while a new auction record was set for Adrian Lawlor with Nude in Archway (Banner of Blood), 1940 (Lot 221 ) which managed $18,000 hp for this surrealist work estimated at $8,000-12,000.
It has been a long time coming for Hans Heysen, and it took a painting which won the 1926 Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW to break an auction record set 14 years ago (for The South Coast from the Fosters Collection, sold for $260,000 hp or $306,000 incl. bp with Sotheby’s in May 2005): The Farmyard, Frosty Morning, 1926 (Lot 232 ), was offered with the friendly estimate of $80,000-120,000. It took a matter of moments to push this painting into record breaking territory when it sold for $280,000 hp ($341,600 incl bp).
The best of the results for the decorative arts part of the sale started with lot 1 which clearly carried great emotional attachment for members of the Fairfax family. Catalogued as A Fairfax Crested Walnut Savonarola Chair , it carried estimates of $500-800, and was bid up fiercely by two bidders to $22,000 hp, won by bidder number 780, perhaps a family member who sat directly in front of the auctioneer and went on to secure a substantial number of lots.
Lot 32, a Fine Italian Marble Centre Table carried estimates of $3,000-5,000, and very competitive bidding saw this winged griffin leg table fly to $18,000.
Lot 68 described as Buff Sandstone Head, Avalokitesvara or Shiva, Khmer, late 12th or early 13th Century was a very beautiful object and estimated at a broad $20,000-35,000. Clearly, that wasn’t broad enough, as there was somewhat of a phone bidding frenzy to secure this serene sculpture, which finally sold for an eye-watering $190,000 hp.
A Set of six George II Style Dining Chairs, lot 310, was bought, like numerous items, through David Jones Gallery in 1967, and carried modest estimates, like much traditional style furniture today. However, provenance seems to have played a big part for bidders here like for many other lots: in another auction sale, they might well have sold for the estimated $1,500-2,000, but as part of the Fairfax sale, they achieved almost $20,000 incl. bp.
Lot 344, a Fine George III Mahogany Breakfront Bookcase, circa 1790, with the added provenance of Sir Keith and Lady Murdoch, carried estimates of $6,000-8,000, but was a big pull for bidders who took it all the way to just under $40,000 incl. bp.
The total result for the decorative arts portion of the Fairfax sale just eclipsed the $1 million mark, whilst the art raised $3.1 million, a grand total for the sale of $4.13 million incl. bp.