VETERAN art dealer Denis Savill has thrown down the gauntlet to his auction house rivals by going to market with a giant Brett Whiteley not seen in public for decades, which could attract one of the highest prices for Australian art this year.
Savill is selling Seagull (Japanese: The Screaming Voice), 1988, originally owned by advertising man John Singleton, for $1.6 million, along with a number of other major Australian works that have never been seen at auction.
Australia's art market is a long way from the halcyon days of 2010 when Sidney Nolan's First-Class Marksman sold for $5.4 million. But the Whiteley may pip Deutscher and Hackett's May 2 auction of Arthur Streeton's 1888 Settler's Camp, estimated to sell for as much as $1.5 million.
A week later, Sotheby's Australia hopes to get as much as $1.2 million for Frederick McCubbin's 1886 Whisperings in Wattle Boughs.
One of the highlights of last year's auction market was Whiteley's Washing the Salt Off 1 with its curvaceous, big-bottomed Bondi bathers, which went under the hammer at Menzies Art Brands for $1.55 million.
This year, Whiteley's name has attracted a different kind of publicity with a Sydney banker taking a Melbourne art dealer to court over a $2.5 million sale of an alleged fake Whiteley, one of three alleged fake Whiteleys circulating in the market.
Will this make it harder to sell Seagull? ''I unconditionally think it has helped because if someone will pay $2.5 million for a bit of junk, this is a real painting twice the size, for $1.6 million,'' Savill says.
''I am not telling you it is the greatest Whiteley; I am telling you it is a real Whiteley.''
Seagull, with its brilliant blue sky, aquamarine sea and Whiteley's signature curves, stands nearly two metres high. Briefly owned by Singleton, it was next bought for about $280,000 by a wealthy West Australian family, who are now selling after enjoying it in their Perth home for 24 years.
''It is slightly mad and slightly spiritual and very evocative of Whiteley's sense of space,'' Savill says.
The Savill Galleries sale of 31 paintings also includes Arthur Boyd's 1963 Lovers in a Landscape ($480,000), Fred Williams' Werribee Gorge (II) ($340,000) and Russell Drysdale's Small Landscape, 1945 ($240,000).
The collection will be exhibited from May 9 to June 5.