Eclectic array from the outer limits

Contemporary art is notoriously difficult to shift on the secondary market; work by relatively unknown artists even more so. Yet Peter Fay's collection, to be sold next Wednesday through Shapiro in Sydney, could prove to be the exception to this rule.

Contemporary art is notoriously difficult to shift on the secondary market; work by relatively unknown artists even more so. Yet Peter Fay's collection, to be sold next Wednesday through Shapiro in Sydney, could prove to be the exception to this rule.

Fay, a retired English teacher at The Kings School in Parramatta, specialised in collecting examples of outsider art. He's now selling part of his collection because he's moving to a smaller house in Tasmania. The art he's offloading includes the early work of 2000 Archibald Prize winner Adam Cullen, as well as Pauline Hall.

That's Pauline Hall, a housewife from Cronulla who only ever knitted from a pattern and whose latent talents were discovered by Fay. He encouraged her by suggesting she throw away the patterns and knit him a cup and saucer. Her response was: "Do you want a teacup or coffee cup?"

He later commissioned a complete baked dinner, which was exhibited at the 2008 Royal Easter Show. It proved so popular, it was given its own display area. Typically, Hall knitted some candles for the table, lit and with dripping woollen "wax". This extraordinary work is one of the features of the sale.

Fay says he had no idea what value to give it and left that decision to auctioneer Andrew Shapiro. He suggested estimates of $800 to $1200.

Fay has long been a supporter of the Melbourne-based Arts Project Australia, which promotes the work of artists with intellectual disabilities.

Some examples are listed but, again, how can you put a value on such work?

Listed are 83 works - on paper, paintings, sculpture, ceramics and photography.

The artists represented include Cullen, Peter Cooley, David Griggs, Noel McKenna, Hany Armanious, John Northe, Tim Johnson, Fiona Macdonald, Mike Nicholls, Darren McDonald, Kate Rohde, Yvonne Boag, Clinton Nain, Sean Meilak and Kathy Temin. Estimates range from $200 to $5000, with most about $1000.

There's an online catalogue on the Shapiro website. Expect to be challenged by what you see. Fay estimates that about 75 per cent of the work listed fits in the "outsider" category. Many of these have been included in exhibitions for which Fay has been curator over the past 20 years, notably Home Sweet Home at the National Gallery of Australia in 2003. That show then toured other states of Australia, and New Zealand. This was perhaps the first time this style of art had been featured at a major Australian gallery.

"I have a strong belief in rattling the cage," Fay wrote in the Home Sweet Home catalogue. "I want to get people asking, 'Why is that here? Why is that art and that not?' Outsider artists have as much to give as established, or insider, artists."

Fay has been seriously collecting this genre since 1983, although he recalls buying his first piece while teaching in Leeds, England, in the mid-'70s. He bought a painting from a local amateur art show because it was the least-sophisticated work on display.

This is Fay's philosophy: to buy what appeals to him emotionally, whether it has critical credibility or not. He was among the first to recognise the emerging talent of Adam Cullen in the early '90s.

"He was working really rough back then on any old bits of paper, but there was that sense of raw energy that I liked," Fay says.

Cullen died last year and his work performs well on the secondary market, although Fay has no idea what his really rough work will fetch. Shapiro has given a 1995 work by Cullen estimates of between $3000 and $5000.

A few one-owner auctions of modern Australian art have done well in recent years, notably the Sydney sale of Dr Ann Lewis's estate in November 2011. An estimated 1500 attended the auction and paid more than $4 million in total for her collection, with some lots scoring five to 10 times their estimates. Fay is not expecting similar results.

"I would be very surprised," he says. "The art world is so fickle. There are a lot of people out there with burnt fingers. I'm the last person to ask about all that."

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