'It was subdued," Sotheby's Australia chairman Geoffrey Smith admits, referring to his latest auction of Important Australian Art on August 27. It may have been a beautiful day in Sydney, with a hint of spring in the air, but inside the Woollahra salerooms, the atmosphere was lukewarm.
Despite an impressive and eclectic selection of Australian art, ranging from colonial to contemporary, only 20 lots of the 48 lots sold (42 per cent by volume) for a total of $1,972,740 (40 per cent by value, including buyers' premiums).
The results didn't come close to the pre-sale estimates of between $4.98 million and $6.76 million because no one bought the three key items, notably Brett Whiteley's The Orange Nude (1981).
Estimates were $900,000 to $1.2 million, which was optimistic, as it turned out.
Two important Sidney Nolans - Royal Hotel (estimates $600,000 to $800,000) and Desert Bird ($400,000 to $600,000) - were also passed in. Both were painted in 1948.
Speaking after the sale, Smith didn't know why the three didn't sell, but he did mention the looming election.
Still, there were a few rays of sunshine. The Hitch-Hiker, a 1972 work by Jeffrey Smart, sold for $366,000, including buyer's premium, and paintings by Fred Williams and Albert Tucker sold for $268,400 and $244,000, respectively. All were within expectations.
The real surprises were the results for two colonial works - setting records for both artists. Robert Neill's Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land (1828) sold for $219,600 IBP. Not the top price but Smith rated this painting as "overall, the most important work in the sale".
Another significant work was Thomas Wainewright's Portrait of Thomas Giblin (1846), a convict described as a dandy, an artist and litterateur, convicted forger and suspected poisoner. This striking portrait sold for $109,800 IBP.
Other good results included two examples by contemporary Australian artists.
Peter Booth's Untitled 1997 sold for $183,000 IBP, a record for this artist.
A portrait by Del Kathryn Barton, winner of the Archibald Prize in 2008 and again this year, sold above estimates for $58,560 IBP. Prices for her work continue to rise.
Buyers might be hard to find at home, but Australian art appears to be the flavour of the month in Britain. Starting on September 21, the Australia exhibition takes place at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. This is the first survey of Australian art in Britain for 50 years.
Sourced mainly through the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the exhibition spans more than two centuries, from 1800 to the present, tracking the evolution of this country through 200 works of painting, drawing, photography, watercolours and multimedia.
On September 26, a week after that exhibition opens, Christie's auction house in London will offer 75 works of Australian art with a total estimated value of between $9.3 million and $12.7 million.
The highlight will be a Tasmanian landscape by John Glover, Ben Lomond from Mr Talbot's Property - Four Men Catching Opossums. It was bought in 1835 at a London exhibition of Glover's paintings. Estimates are $3 million to $4.25 million.
Other blue-chip works include Fred McCubbin's Bush Idyll, which set the record in 1998 as the most expensive Australian painting sold at auction when it fetched $2.3 million. It now reappears with a lower estimate of $2 million.
More modern works include two Jeffrey Smart paintings, both unseen on the secondary market for more than 40 years.
Geoffrey Smith, a former head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, will fly over to attend the launch of the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition and will also attend the Christie's sale, possibly wearing a disguise.
While he notes the irony of going to England to see Australian art, he suggests both events should have a positive impact on the secondary market here.
"It should influence the primary market as well, and also translate into other areas, such as art publications."
To see what did and didn't sell, see the online gallery at theage.com.au/money.