Brush with the bush … Lovers by a Creek by Arthur Boyd. Photo: WILLIAM MOTTRAM
The Sotheby's Australia chairman, Geoffrey Smith, cautiously describes the results from the latest sale of Important Australian Art as ''solid'', adding that ''one successful sale does not make a market''.
He was referring specifically to the top 10 results of the May sale in Sydney, which were later released as a kind of ''hit parade''. Top of the charts was the 1886 Frederick McCubbin painting Whisperings in Wattle Boughs, which sold for $1.2 million, including a 20 per cent buyer's premium (IBP).
Arthur Boyd's Dry Creek Bed, Alice Springs (1953-1954) also fetched $1.2 million IBP.
Another Boyd, his 1960 work Lovers by a Creek, sold for $960,000 IBP and Charles Blackman's There Was, 1953 sold for $840,000 IBP.
And so the winning bids came in, for Alexander Schramm, Rupert Bunny, Russell Drysdale, John Perceval and another Boyd, with William Robinson's Birkdale Farm coming in 10th, sold for $156,000 IBP. Smith didn't want to boast, but my gut feeling is such results haven't been seen on the secondary art market since before the global financial crisis.
Sotheby's achieved nostalgic clearance rates of 86 per cent by value and 70 per cent by volume at a time when auction houses are tightening their belts. So is iconic work by blue-chip Australian artists the next big thing in investment?
Not necessarily, Smith says. He points out that the top four sellers were bought by astute private collectors, rather than speculators after a quick profit. What made these sell so well was the quality of the work and the rarity factor.
That top-selling McCubbin has been in the same family since it was bought from the exhibition space in, believe it or not, 1886. This painting has achieved almost mythical proportions.
Its appearance in the public domain after 126 years in private hands was literally a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The $1.2 million Boyd is also unique, having been held by another family since the 1970s.
Both appeared for sale through what Smith calls ''generational'' reasons - when family members finally decide the artwork is too valuable to leave hanging on a wall.
Private collectors and public institutions pray for these eureka moments to arrive.
The fifth best-selling work, a canvas by colonial artist Alexander Schramm, titled Native Encampment in South Australia (circa 1859), was notable for another reason.
Smith discovered that no work by Schramm had appeared on the secondary market since the 1970s.
He admits to struggling to provide a range of estimates, which, as it turned out, were well short of the mark.
The painting sold for $588,000 IBP, nearly double its lower estimate.
Although he stops short of proclaiming a resurgence in the Australian art market, Smith is already busy consigning work for the next sale in Melbourne on August 14. An auction is planned for Sydney in summer.
Iconic Australian art is the dominant theme, at Sotheby's at least. There's a group of discerning private buyers looking for blue-chip work and they are prepared to pay $1 million or more, even in the current economic climate.
There are more classics on the way. Sidney Nolan's 1945 work Kelly and Lonigan looks like making the cover of Sotheby's August catalogue, although things could have changed by the time this appears in print. The Nolan work is another coup, a rare example from his first Ned Kelly series. It has a pre-sale estimate range of $400,000 to $600,000.
Another important work already listed is Fred Williams's Werribee Gorge (1977-1978) estimated at $280,000 to $320,000.
Geoffrey Smith's personal preference is for the traditional, but he was pleased to see contemporary work also selling well. Dale Frank's 2004 painting - its cryptic 33-word title begins with Remember Fortune Cookie Road 8 - sold for $45,600 IBP, more than double estimates of $18,000 to $22,000. Who knows what this one will be worth in a 120 years or so?