Australian art market momentum



Although confined to a marketplace consisting of Sydney and Melbourne, the demand for modern and contemporary Australian art is surprisingly dynamic. In fact, the auction price indices of the country’s top artists have been very buoyant, particularly since 2007.
In the modern and contemporary segments, Australian collectors show a strong preference for paintings, oil and acrylic, and for figurative work (the traditional aboriginal art is essentially abstract).

One of the main figures in Australian modern art is the painter Brett WHITELEY (1939-1992) whose artistic career received a substantial boost in the 1960s when the Tate Gallery acquired his Untitled Red painting. At the time, Whiteley became the Tate’s youngest-ever artist and thereafter he worked and travelled extensively around the world. Today there is strong demand for Brett Whiteley’s work from galleries, institutions and collectors, making him Australia’s most sought artist during the decade. In effect, his prices rose very quickly during the last decade so that 100 euros invested in one of his works in 1998 were worth an average of 555 euros by February 2010. Of his seven auction results above the USD 1 million line – mainly generated by his large format paintings from the 1980s – four were recorded in 2007, including his auction record of USD 2,445,280 for The Olgas for Ernest Giles on 13 June 2007 at Deutscher & Menzies.

However, that result is still lower than the best result generated by the older expressionist painter Sidney Robert NOLAN whose prices seemed to be loosing momentum (very few transactions in 2008 and 2009) when Deutscher & Menzies presented one of his major works entitled First-Class Marksman (1946) for sale on 25 March 2010. The piece sold within its pre-sale estimated price range for AUD 4,5m (approx. USD 4.1m). This exceptional result was the best hammer price of the decade in Australia for a domestic artist!
Among the best results of 2009 and 2010, the most accomplished works by Norman LINDSAY now sell for between USD 100,000 to 235,000.
Arthur BOYD and Frank Jeffrey Edson SMART each signed their auction records in Sydney on 24 June 2010. The former with Moby Dick Hill, near Frankston, Victoria, which fetched AUD 740,000 (USD 645,000) and the latter with a strangely atmospheric painting entitled Holiday, which fetched the equivalent of USD 697,280. In addition, there has been sharp inflation of the price indices for Frederick Ronald WILLIAMS (1927-1982) whose three 7-figure dollar results were posted between 2006 and 2009 and for John Cecil BRACK (1920-1999) whose six 7-figure results date from 2006, 2007 and 2010.

Top 10 Australian Art (2000 – 2010)

In more affordable price ranges, the best works by Frederick CRESS (1938) can be obtained for USD 10,000 to 40,000 on average. In this price range, art buyers can pick up large watercolours by John Henry OLSEN (his oil paintings cost between USD 60,000 and 200,000) or Frederick Ronald Williams. In the higher USD 40,000 – 120,000 range, perfectly juxtaposed still-lifes by Grace Cossington SMITH (1892-1984) and tranquil landscapes by Lloyd Frederic REES are regularly offered for sale.

The young generation of artists, still loyal to the Australian figurative tradition, is essentially represented by artists such as Rick AMOR, Lin ONUS, Stephen BUSH, Vincent FANTAUZZO and Cherry HOOD. Rick Amor has a distinct talent for evoking mysterious atmospheres and clearly owes much to the symbolists and surrealists of the last century. Some of his small format paintings sell for less than $10,000 at auctions, such as the industrial landscape which fetched the equivalent of $6,360 on 28 April 2010 at Deutscher & Hackett, Sydney (Industrial Landscape). A month later the artist posted his first-ever result above the $100,000 line for a painting of a ghostly waiter – The Waiter – which fetched AUD 110,000 (approx. USD 100,300) at Deutscher & Menzies.
Strange moods also invade the works of Lin Onus who crossed the USD 200,000 line for the first time in 2006. In March 2010, her Reflections, Barmah Forest fetched the equivalent of USD 200,600 at Deutscher & Menzies. The price of this painting doubled in less than seven years (it was acquired for $100,600 on 26 November 2003). Some of her oils on cardboard from the 1970s can be picked up at auctions for less than $10,000. There are also the hyper-realist paintings produced by Vincent Fantauzzo (born in Birmingham and living in Melbourne). On 24 June 2010, his Portrait of Brandon fetched the handsome sum of AUD 50,000 (USD 43,580) at Menzies Art Brands, Sydney.

The five leading auction houses in Australia (Sotheby’s, Menzies, Deutscher & Hackett, Bonhams & Goodman, Lawson & Menzies) are all in good health. Strong demand for domestic art is helping to establish a new generation of artists whose major paintings can be acquired for less than 10,000$, such as Jasper KNIGHT, whose first auction appearance on 24 June 2009 with a boldly coloured painting entitled Bangkok Boogie Woogie produced a result of AUD 12,000 (USD 9,450).

As Australian contemporary art gathers pace, aboriginal art has been losing steam since its peak in 2007. Many of the historical masters of this specialist segment have died over the last decade or so and the major museums have been buying up the best works. Occasionally a rare aboriginal masterpiece generates a 5-figure result. There was even a 7-figure record in 2007 for the painting Warlugulong (1977) by Clifford Possum TJAPALTJARRI (1932-2002). Warlugulong, a large work measuring over 3 metres across, was acquired for AUD 2 million (USD 1.76m) at Sotheby’s in Melbourne by the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. Elsewhere, strong demand for aboriginal art over the last decade has given rise to an increasing number of specialist auctions, particularly in Europe where such sales have been organised by Tajan, Artcurial and Gaïa.