Business is booming as barriers fall for steeped-in art lovers

More than $ 38 million worth of works of art have been sold by major Australian auction houses since January, almost four times the $ 10.7 million reported at the same time last year.

From premier auctioneers to multi-category liquidation venues, Australian art auctioneers have quickly adapted to auctioning through online platforms and business has never been better.

Business has never been better for Australian art auctioneers. This photo, taken in April, shows Arthur Streeton’s Grand Canal auctioned by Deutscher and Hackett in Melbourne.Credit:Penny stephens

John Albrecht, managing director of mid-range auction house Leonard Joel, said he had “never seen anything like it.”

Albrecht said the phenomenon of online shopping has been embraced by art collectors, and some of these collectors are buying art for the first time.

“What we are seeing is absolutely golden cage syndrome,” he said. “[Consumers] have gone from “experience spending” on things like travel to good old-fashioned spending on things to fill your house. “

Leonard Joel held an art auction on June 8 in Melbourne during a Stage Four foreclosure. There was no bidder in the auction room, with interested buyers only being able to view the works via Facetime calls with curatorial staff who showed them the images and sculptures scattered across the gallery walls.

“Eighty-five percent of the 147 works have found buyers. In a Fourth Stage foreclosure he went over budget and brought in $ 829,000, ”Albrecht said. “It’s unpleasant to talk about how the art market is gangstered because I know other companies are doing it hard.”

Arthur Streeton's record-breaking Grand Canal.

Arthur Streeton’s record-breaking Grand Canal.

Industry-wide, the 10 highest auction prices in 2021 were, as usual, paid for large canvases painted by dead white men.

Arthur Streeton Grand Canal sold for $ 3 million, the highest price of the year. The paintings of Jeffrey Smart, Sid Nolan and Frederick McCubbin also performed well.

The late Bessie Davidson is the only female artist in the top 10, with her still life Interior (1935) sold for nearly $ 700,000 – more than double its high estimate, in a price determined by the efforts of private collectors and public institutions to equal the historical imbalance between the sexes.

Interior of Bessie Davidson (1935) sold for $ 662,727 in April of this year.

Interior of Bessie Davidson (1935) sold for $ 662,727 in April of this year. Credit:

Record prices are also set for living artists, with an edition of famed photographer Tracey Moffatt’s most famous series, Something more, for $ 270,000 in March.

Ben Quilty’s Parakeet Beast 2, painted 16 years ago, sold for $ 270,000 at the end of March, more than $ 100,000 more than the highest price previously paid for a Quilty at auction.

Other living artists benefiting from the revival are Imants Tillers, Michael Zavros and Ron Robertson-Swann, whose model of its once-maligned civic sculpture Jump, nicknamed The yellow peril, recovered $ 55,000. These living artists can earn a five percent royalty on transactions, but only if the artwork has already been sold twice.

Ben Quilty's Beast 2 (2005) set a new record for the artist, almost five times exceeding his high estimate of $ 220,000 ($ 270,000 including the buyer's premium).

Ben Quilty’s Beast 2 (2005) set a new record for the artist, almost five times exceeding his high estimate of $ 220,000 ($ 270,000 including the buyer’s premium).Credit:Menzies

The modest auction total for the same period last year reflected the fact that art auctions were largely suspended from late March to June. Then, as auction houses intensified their online trading in an attempt to resume operations, sellers were reluctant to put items up for sale.

“We were facing an absolute disaster,” said buyer’s agent David Hulme.

In the second half of 2020, the art market rebounded so much that by the end of the year, $ 108 million worth of works of art had been sold, a figure comparable to the total of $ 111 million before the pandemic in 2019 and the industry total in 2018 of $ 107 million.

“A lot of my clients would normally spend six to eight weeks in Europe,” Hulme said. “They can’t go there so there are now more buyers than sellers.”


Examination of the numbers reveals that in 2020 fewer artworks were sold and a limited stock generated higher prices per artwork. But these high prices aren’t just for art.

During the recent Melbourne foreclosure, Leonard Joel sold over $ 800,000 worth of jewelry.

The company has sold more than $ 7 million worth of jewelry in the past 12 months, double its budget.

Bonhams international auction house also sells jewelry, in addition to vintage cars, prints, Asian art and many other categories of collectibles in offices around the world.

Bonhams Australia director Merryn Schriever in the home observation room in 2020.

Bonhams Australia director Merryn Schriever in the home observation room in 2020. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Bonhams Australia director Merryn Schriever said there was a lot of “discretionary money” available to some people and auction houses were working harder to reach them. It has doubled its photo budget and increased its video expenses, while the company is saving money by printing fewer catalogs.

“I don’t think it’s business as usual,” she said. “All the old barriers have disappeared, like the buyers [no longer] see the works.


As a result, Schriever said international buyers are diving into categories and territories they didn’t have before – for example, buyers in Hong Kong are increasingly turning to Asian jewelry and art.

Under these conditions, the Australian art market is expected to grow year on year, but currently remains stable.

“I don’t see enough diversification in the collector base,” said Schriever.

Retail galleries have confirmed trade has been stable over the past year – but the art market’s biggest achievement is that it has not declined due to various COVID closures – 19.

Albrecht said the market will contract when international travel resumes, but meanwhile: “I expect another year of this.”

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