It was nearly a decade and a half ago now, whilst standing at the bottom of the main staircase at Christie’s London- viewing as I was, an Australian colonial painting by Eugene von Guerard- that I witnessed the Lord Lloyd Webber art pack come crashing through the front doors at a trot. Up the stairs they shot, lead by the billionaire (Australian dollars) show tunes producer and composer, Lloyd Webber, who on slightly turning his head to the left, spied the von Guerard, commenting rather loudly over his shoulder “I like that”- and the rest as they say is history. Some months later, Webber went on to pay $1.98 million at auction, for von Guerard’s imposing, A View of Geelong, 1856. With that oh so public record price for the artist, the early 1990’s Australian art recession come to an enthusiastic close.
The great art boom had begun.
From the mid-1990s till January 2008 the world (and particularly the Australian economy) witnessed one of the longest, sustained financial booms in Western history. An unprecedented accumulation of discretionary income, saw an Australian art market awash with vast sums of money. The turnover of the Australian art market at auction in 1996 was $37.7 million dollars soaring to $175.6 million dollars in 2007 (2008: $114.6 million dollars, 2009: $90.8 million dollars). The market over the boom period saw eight record-breaking “art sold at auction” years.
Over this period, total annual sales of quality art in galleries jumped from around $100m a year to possibly as much as $600m. It should be noted that although in a global context Australian art auction turnover figures (or prices realised for art works sold) may seem modest, the entire Australian population of 22 million people plus would comfortably fit into greater Tokyo. On anyone’s reading of the numbers, the sale of art has developed into a significant and growing industry, one of general importance to the wider community and economy.
In 2007 the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art sold at auction exceeded $23 million dollars, up from $1.3 million dollars in 1996 (2008: $11.5 million dollars and 2009: $10.5 million dollars). Art and the notion of ‘cultural revival is survival’ has been the single most significant driver to elevate Aboriginal people from almost abject obscurity some twenty years ago, to their significant presence on today’s world stage.
These buoyant times saw great changes afoot in the art auction houses. Of the “big three” – Christie, Sotheby’s and Leonard Joel’s – that dominated the Australian art auction scene in the mid-1990s, only Sotheby’s remains a powerhouse today. Christie’s Australia ceased holding auctions in 2006 and Leonard Joel’s was bought out by Bonhams & Goodman, (established in 2003 as an amalgamation of the Sydney firm Goodman’s Auctioneers and the voraciously acquisitions-hungry UK based Bonhams group) which, also took over Theodore Bruce in Adelaide and Stanley & Co in Sydney. In 2001 when English-owned Phillips International imploded in Europe, its Sydney office was sold to Australian employee Andrew Shapiro and the firm is now called simply Shapiro. What was Deutscher-Menzies at its inception in 1998 is today the Menzies Art Brands having grown, morphed and swallowed Lawson’s Auctioneers. In 2007 Chris Deutscher and Damian Hackett flew the Menzies nest to form Deutscher and Hackett. Complicated? wait there’s more to come.
Sotheby’s established a specialist, stand alone, Aboriginal art department in 1996 and for this we give thanks. Ever the astute marketers, Sotheby’s also took on the added financial responsibility of touring many of their subsequent sale offerings internationally, holding viewings in London and New York. In 1997 Sotheby’s sold Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1972, for $206,000 to an overseas collector. Three years later the painting was resold for $486,500
One by-product of the big bucks paid for Aboriginal art has been the rise and rise of interest in, and general commitment to the notion of resale royalties. As with music royalties, payable to the songwriter every time their song is played, many believe artists should be rewarded for their creativity every time one of their paintings is sold. Much of this campaign was set in motion with the revelation that Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula was originally paid under $200 dollars for his Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1972. When it sold for $206,000 in 1996 Johnny was living at the Hetti Perkins Home for the Aged in Alice Springs. I spoke with him, through an interpreter, on the night of the sale. Amidst much general taunting – and his adamant chanting of “I am number one painter and you are all dogs” to the assembled aged mob – it was more than obvious that Johnny was not living the life of a Rockefeller. Even a modest return of resale royalties would have greatly helped him in his old age. As I write it is expected that a Resale Royalties scheme will come into effect mid way through 2010, ushering in possibly the most dramatic change to the operation of selling Australian artworks since the multinationals Christie’s and Sotheby’s entered the market from the late 1960’s
Another by-product of the booming domestic and international demand for Aboriginal art has been the concentration by many unscrupulous art dealers on supplying volume (rather than quality) of contemporary art. Carpetbaggers (as they are known in the trade) continue to entice artists to work outside the community-based art centres, in return for quick money and alcohol. The works thus produced – known as “town paintings” because they are created in a town sweatshop – are characterised by their very poor quality. In order to combat commercial exploitation, monitor quality and stem the considerable flow of fake paintings onto the market, many indigenous communities have set up their own art associations over the years. These community-based art centres provide their artists with quality art materials (vital if the resulting works are to survive the breathtakingly harsh local conditions) and ensure artists are properly paid for their work. Most importantly however, the community-based art centres allow indigenous artists to work in their own time and at their own pace rather than being stood over by a carpetbagger who is interested only in the completion of numerous canvases each day.
Following the August 1995 round of art auctions the Australian newspaper ran an unprecedented front-page splash- for once an actually good news art story made the first page–on the seismic shift that was taking place in collecting emphasis and taste. In that round of auctions a number of late modern paintings thoroughly out stripped the prices paid for tradition artists of the same standing. In a nutshell, the late modern painter Brett Whiteley and his ilk trumped the traditionalist’s lead by Arthur Streeton. The Australian nailed it on the head, the most significant market trend of the mid 1990’s was the mainstream ascendence of late twentieth century painters and the corresponding retreat of the traditionalist. Today unless a 19th century painting is of great interest (i.e. of obvious quality; of an interesting subject or being rare for the artist) then the market will none too politely inform you that you are possession of brown wallpaper.
The acceleration in art buying has occurred over the last fifteen years to some significant degree as a result of a surging real estate market. The national (and particularly Sydney) fascination with all things housing-stock has stimulated a relatively new parallel economy in lifestyle television programming (the “how we should live our lives and how we should spend our discretionary income within the house” style of media) which aggressively emphasizes the importance of the home interior. Renovation television programmes nightly invade the homes of millions of consumers outlining the importance of colour and art- and of a staple gun and Spot Light fabric. The result of all this “you can do change” lifestyle television has been a democratisation of the art market, which has rapidly grown as a far wider section of the community has been led to an appreciation of owning your own quality art.
And let us not forget the up and coming Generation X. Having taught at university this on the whole well-manicured and well-educated bunch of optimistic funksters, there is no doubt in my mind that although as a group they tend to have a shortish attention span, they are without peer the most visually literate generation to walk the planet. Having grown up in the computer age, where information on the World Wide Web is conveyed more through pictures than words, Generation X is visually astute.
Driven by an increasingly visual world and to a large degree paralleling the boon in auction houses, the mid 1990’s in Australia witness the establishment of Perspecta, a contemporary art fair in Melbourne during 1998 and Brisbane’s regionally significant Asia-Pacific Triennial in 1993. The notion of art events, such as the Melbourne Art Fair and Art Month Sydney 2010, creating mainstream “destinational” inter-state travel and consequently a major tourism up-swing for the hosting city, had firmly arrived.
In the early 1990’s, wanting to better understand their business, Christie’s London undertook an internal study, which concluded-from memory- that worldwide, 1.3 per cent of the population collected art or antiques in any serious manner. Today much has changed. From my experience 5 per cent plus of Australians spend significantly on art and antiques. Another 5 per cent would identify themselves as interested in buying art and or as art collectors. In order to feed an insatiable arts-interested sales beast, the auction houses and many of our leading art dealers have turned their attentions away from predominantly trading in the secondary market-the dead white males-to the promotion of initially late modern art and increasingly contemporary art, the art of now. The mainstreaming of contemporary art within the art market as a function of needing stock to sell has been a tremendous boost to many living artists.
Going somewhat against the image of the starving young, under-appreciated contemporary artist, the last fifteen years of boom saw an increasing number of contemporary artists earn close to a half a million plus dollars (Australian) a year. Granted, thousands do not. However, due to the growing market focus on the living rather than the dead, more contemporary artists have earned well above the average wage than ever before. The lot of contemporary artists (albeit coming from a low base) is improving-or was till early 2008. Top art auction dollars paid for the work of living artists include: the $1,075,500 achieved in 2006 for John Olsen’s oil, Love in the Kitchen, 1969; a solid $900,000 for Jeffrey Smart’s The City Bus Station 1985-1986; $696,000 for William Robinson, Landscape with Sunset and Self Portrait in 2007; and $227,050 for Tracey Moffatt’s photographic series Something More in 2004.
In the heady mix that was wealth; tax breaks; philanthropy and a sign of the times, a number of local collectors in the new milennia well and truly caught the art museum building bug. From a low base of only one significant private art museum in the country (the now closed Museum of Contemporary Art, Brisbane 1987-1994) today’s private art edifice landscape now includes, The Holmes a Court Gallery (2000); The Lyon Housemuseum (2002); TarraWarra Museum of Art (2002); Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (2008); White Rabbit (2009); Detached (2009) and the Museum of Old and New Art (2010). There is a persistent rumour that at least one other major Melbourne collector is expected to take his taste public in the next few years. Australian private art museums, as has been the case in Europe and North America, are expected to deeply enrich the community by affording alternative exhibition spaces controlled by a singularly strong very personal vision.
Over the last fifteen years, mineral resource-driven economic growth and an increasingly educated workforce have combined to see the implosion of the traditional, never to meet, social divide of “the haves and the have-nots”. Over the period of investigation, Australia’s political economy became far more interrelated, blended and widely materially abundant than at any time in our history. As a society we are far more engaged with the Australian Stock Market than we have ever been before. Individuals have been encouraged to take up share ownership by the off-loading of some State utilities, and by floatations of, amongst others, Telstra, the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas, TAB Corp, Commonwealth Cerium Laboratories. The success of these large government floats has created a broad community of shareholders. But when, from early 2008 and in line with a world trend, the Australian stock market tumbled in a jagged line south, our broad, share market-investing society witnessed a decrease in wealth and a mauling of consumer confidence. An economic lethargy that was keenly felt over the preceding eighteen months– from the big end of town right through to commercial galleries and the myriad of art associated businesses that depend on a buoyant art market for their livelihoods, not to mention the artists themselves. In 2009 a significant number of commercial art galleries hit the wall.
Over the last two years, bruised community confidence went hand in hand with a significant reduction in discretionary spending; a greater re-evaluation of risk and a move to more tangible assets and more orthodox, less risk-averse investments and art collecting. Across markets, whether tech stocks, resources or art, there has been a flight towards quality. Astute collectors within budget have been focusing on the very best of art, whether traditional, contemporary, Indigenous or Australian- and within that, the more conservative spectrum of any period of art has garnered the greatest attention. Eight of the top 10 new highest prices achieved at auction in 2009 were for colonial and landscape paintings. A good example being the $504,000 paid for a Lloyd Rees landscape, Song to Creation Land, 1969 which had previously sold in 2007- at the height of the market- for $320,000. Overseas records for Old Master pictures tumbled. In London late 2009, Raphael’s drawing Head of a Muse, undertaken circa 1508 to 1511 achieved a staggering $52.4 million dollars at auction
As a consequence of this flight to the most orthodox, the period that was early 2008 until early 2010 saw in retail art gallery sales in the middle to low end of the Australian art market and or the very cutting edge of contemporary art practice somewhat of a friendless place. Throughout 2009 from Darwin to Hobart, Sydney to Perth exhibitions by emerging Australian artists were heavily viewed by collectors- with wallets firmly in their pockets. There were of course exceptions to the general exhibition rule, contemporary artists such as Danie Mellor went from sell out strength to strength- but exceptions were few and far apart.
Mirroring a general down turn in the galleries, at auction, the lower to middle of the art market saw estimated pre-sale auction values reduced by around 25%. In 2009 Sotheby’s parent company in New York- under a great deal of financial stress- franchised their Australian operation, for ten years, to well known Sydney auctioneer Tim Goodman. Leonard Joel’s in Melbourne; Theodore Bruce in Adelaide and Stanley & Co in Sydney, who had all acted in concert under the Bonham’s & Goodman brand, were reformed under First East Auction Holdings Ltd. As I write Bonham’s all too recently jilted in Australia, are looking for a new dance partner. Yes, it is all somewhat rambling and complicated, however that is a point to note in itself. For the Australian art market at auction is characterized by a history of entry and exit by local and international players in response to market opportunities.
So as we boldly go forth into 2010- somewhat gingerly on egg shells- all the economic and confidence signs of late are that another Lord Lloyd Webber may well burst onto the art scene and in doing so end one short sharp and rather nasty down turn and in turn ignite another near decade of resource driven general art and economic boom- I will keep my webbed toes crossed.
Art dealer; author and art market analyst