Big names at low, low prices

While the record $3.9 million paid for Brett Whiteley's painting My Armchair dominated the Australian auction scene this month, the question remains, was it a good investment or not?

While the record $3.9 million paid for Brett Whiteley's painting My Armchair dominated the Australian auction scene this month, the question remains, was it a good investment or not?

Purchaser John Playfoot certainly thought so, but for those without $4 million to spare, maybe a Thomas Balcombe is a better prospect. His oil painting, Aborigines Fishing by Torchlight, is available at Sotheby's next sale of important Australian art on November 26 with a more affordable $8000 to $12,000 range of estimates.

"That's the price of a Whiteley print," says Sotheby's chairman Geoffrey Smith.

When asked to nominate potential bargains, this was Smith's first choice. Balcombe, who died in 1861, is hardly a household name, but his oils are rare and this one, according to Smith, is extremely historically important. It is also "fascinating and beautiful".

As always, listed at the Sotheby's sale are significant works by established blue-chippers such as Arthur Streeton, Charles Blackman, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd, with estimates in the $100,000 to $500,000 bracket.

Bargain hunters with a limited budget might be more interested in Balcombe, or Peter Booth. This Melbourne artist is noted for his bleak psychological subject matter. He's no shining star like Whiteley, but recently recorded a record result of his own, $183,000 (including buyer's premium) at Sotheby's previous Australian art sale in Sydney. This puts Booth in the top echelon of living Australian artists.

That work was called Untitled 1997. Booth's entry in this auction is Painting 1996. He's not one for snappy titles.

Smith also nominated Yellow Room, Afternoon, a significant painting by Margaret Olley, sadly no longer with us. This was partly because he'd been standing in the depicted room, now empty, that morning. Her Paddington house is for sale. Estimates of $70,000 to $90,000, combined with the emotional response to Olley's work, make this painting worth considering. Her work has steadily risen in value since her death.

Dale Frank is another contemporary artist whose work is rising in value on the secondary market. A 2005 work listed by Sotheby's has a title that is too long to reproduce in full, but includes a cryptic reference to Paul Keating's collection of French Empire clocks. "A very good, considered artist," says Smith. Estimates are $28,000 to $32,000.

There are also potential bargains among the blue-chip brigade. Lot 8 is a Whiteley vase, thrown in 1985 by potter John K. Dellow, then decorated with three Japanese motifs by the artist. It stands 57 centimetres tall and Smith says he's seen fewer than five to this scale at auction. Estimates of $50,000 to $70,000 make this an accessible purchase. A Whiteley tapestry is also listed in the same price range.

One surprise is a 1946 work by Nolan from the extremely desirable "first series" of Ned Kelly pictures. This is an ink and wash sketch on paper, done as a gift to a friend, June Bellew, which explains the low estimates of $20,000 to $30,000. Still, it's a Sid Nolan Ned Kelly.

Also of interest, and with possible potential for investment, are works by indigenous artist Paddy Bedford (Lot 39, estimates $30,000 to $40,000), Tucker's 1936 Portrait of Alan Sumner (Lot 33, $20,000 to $30,000), John Coburn's Canticle of the Sun II (Lot 31, $15,000 to $20,000) and, for Debbie Harry fans, Dick Watkins' Bad Girl (Lot 19, $10,000 to $15,000).

Sotheby's next sale of important Australian art is in Melbourne on the evening of Tuesday, November 26. Viewing of the artworks is available daily from this Thursday at Anzac House in Collins Street.

To see a gallery of images from the sale go to

theage.com.au/money

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