June is the cruellest month, at least in auction circles. Experts say they traditionally struggle to shift product at the end of the financial year. Wallets seem to open more easily in warm weather.
On the bitterly cold evening of June 18, Sotheby's held a general auction of fine Asian, Australian and European design at its Anzac House headquarters in Collins Street, Melbourne. This was a new sale model for Sotheby's: a tight catalogue of 229 lots including Chinese ceramics, designer furniture, European glass and silver, Australian and European paintings and works on paper.
The auction achieved a total of $1,506,334, including buyers' premium (IBP), with 60.26 per cent sold by volume and 110.71 per cent by value.
Sotheby's chairman Geoffrey Smith said he was especially pleased by the results of Chinese ceramics, with some reminders of the halcyon days of five years ago. The best seller was lot 17, a pair of dragon and phoenix bowls from the Kangxi period, reputedly acquired in Australia in the 1940s or '50s.
Estimates were $30,000 to $50,000; they sold for $195,200 IBP after strong bidding in the room, and on the telephone and internet.
The auction was well attended by Asian clients. Some of these, Smith suspects, may have been bidding on behalf of buyers in China or Hong Kong.
Almost as spectacular was lot 61, a magnolia and prunus rhinoceros horn libation cup, dating from the 17th-18th century. It sold for well over estimates of $20,000 to $30,000, for $75,640 IBP.
This will certainly please the eagle-eyed vendor, who picked it up for $4 in a Sydney op shop. Yes, this can still happen.
Other good results in the Asian section included lot 24, a pair of Qing dynasty jade pendants (estimates $1500 to $2000, sold for $19,520 IBP), and lot 39, a green dragon dish (estimates $12,000 to $15,000, sold for $31,720 IBP). A pair of beautiful lavender-blue glazed Cong vases, from the period of Daoguang, sold for $21,960 IBP and $26,840 IBP to the one bidder. These had been acquired in Beijing during the early 1970s.
There were also things that didn't sell. lot 84, a Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds by acclaimed bird artist John Gould, didn't achieve estimates of $160,000 to $200,000 and was passed in. Also unwanted was lot 123, Danila Vassilieff's sculpture Star Drill (1949), made of Lilydale marble. It came from the estate of Pro Hart, but estimates of $8000 to $12,000 proved optimistic.
Lot 150, Little Yellow Nude (Study for Little Yellow Girl) 1966 by Melbourne artist John Brack, wasn't bought on the night but Smith was expecting it to sell later on, with bids of about $20,000. A 1984 Brett Whiteley watercolour, The Waves, Port Villa, sold above estimates, for $31,720 IBP, and one of the bargains on the night was a signed Max Dupain photo portrait of artist Bill Dobell, dated 1942. Estimates were $1200 to $1800, but it sold for $2684 IBP.
A Dobell painting of opera singer Dorothy Helmrich made $34,160 IBP.
In the furniture department, a Grant Featherston contour chair, circa 1952 and covered in fabric designed by John Olsen, sold for $5490 IBP, just above the estimates of $4500 to $5000.
As an indication of what is in demand and what isn't, Smith was pleased with this new auction concept. Expect more of the same. The main disappointment is that work by contemporary Australian artists still seems unloved by buyers in the secondary market.