Milking popularity of lost shots

It’s a simple photo of a Melbourne milk bar, taken by Angus O’Callaghan about 1970, and it sold at a Leonard Joel auction in May for a record $2920, including buyers premium (IBP).

It’s a simple photo of a Melbourne milk bar, taken by Angus O’Callaghan about 1970, and it sold at a Leonard Joel auction in May for a record $2920, including buyers premium (IBP).

At the same sale, another O’Callaghan print, Coffee Lounge, sold for $2440 IBP, as did The Block Arcade. The whole sale, Leonard Joel managing director John Albrecht says, went ‘‘gangbusters’’.

His prediction is these photos – reprinted in limited numbers from the original negatives – will at least double in value over the next decade.

Forty years after they were taken, the works of Angus O’Callaghan are very much in demand, yet he wasn’t a professional photographer. He was a school teacher. In 1969 he bought two Yashicaflex medium-format cameras and spent three years anonymously documenting the city he loved. He wandered at random and took snaps of whatever interested him.

‘‘When I took the photographs, my purpose was to become a professional photographer,’’ he says. ‘‘When that didn’t happen, I gave up that idea and went back to teaching.’’ His plan was to produce a book, but a publishing deal fell through. He filed the negatives in a shoebox, where they remained for more than 40 years. His second wife found them while unpacking a tea chest when they moved house.

O’Callaghan, now 91, says he had forgotten about them.

Their spectacular success on the secondary art market is a unique phenomenon not even the Leonard Joel art experts can quite explain.

Nor can O’Callaghan, although he’s happy to have finally been ‘‘discovered’’.

Demand has spread largely during the past five years by word of mouth, as has interest in photographic prints in general, especially those taken in Melbourne in the 1950s to 1970s. This niche market was revealed in 2012 after Leonard Joel held the third of their specialty Photographic Auctions on July 22.

The saleroom was packed with young punters, who knew exactly what they wanted and were willing to pay well above estimates. They returned in force in May this year for the Angus O’Callaghan stand-alone sale, where three times the estimate was the norm for the top lots.

Photography was also included in Leonard Joel’s art sale in June but prices were well down on May. This is something John Albrecht attributes to the 60 lots of photography being included among more traditional paintings.

The best price paid was the $610 IBP for a stylish work by Melbourne fashion photographer Bruno Benini showing Helen Homewood on the steps of Parliament House.

In July, 2012, a Benini print entitled Hot Soup 1957 sold for $1500. Another, Eastern Markets, sold for $1850.

What sells and what doesn’t in this fickle market is fascinating to observe.

A 1930s nude study by Max Dupain – estimated at $3000-$5000 – failed to find a buyer this June. This is the same Dupain who was flavour of the month 10 years ago.

An iconic 1967 image by Wolfgang Sievers, titled The Gears: Gears for Mining Industry, generated interest on the night but as of last week, no definite buyer.

It’s Melbourne milk bars the young connoisseur wants these days.

This image – one of a series of five prints from the original negatives in ‘‘supersize’’ (160 centimetres x 160 centimetres) format – is one of three Angus O’Callaghan photos to be included as part of Leonard Joels’ Modern and Traditional Auction this Sunday at 12 Smith Street, Collingwood, at 11am. This new auction concept is curated by artist David Bromley, a fan of O’Callaghan’s work. If the large-scale prints sell – estimates are $4000-$6000 – they will set price records for the schoolteacher who gave up his dream of being a photographer 40 years ago.

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