If I could sum up the 2016 Australian art market in a concise fashion it would be: the high-end excelled and the mid-low range languished.
In general, 2016 has seen marked positive shift for Indigenous and non-Indigenous art on the secondary market, highlighted by several extraordinary results at Sotheby's in London for Indigenous art and backed up with several record barriers being moved by Sotheby's Australia earlier this month. Both auctions highlighted the fact that important works with impeccable provenance and exhibition history and that haven't been overly exposed to the market, will garner significant attention by astute collectors. The next auction to watch will be Deutscher and Hackett, which is taking place as I write and has a solid offering of both Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous works.
For me, this December quarter has been the strongest quarter thus far, coupled by the renewed interest for Australian Indigenous works internationally and buoyed by the confidence of simply handling great stock. My recent exhibition in association with Charles Nodrum was successful, to date having sold 25 of the 40 offered works during the 3 week exhibition window (including 14 Baillieu Tiwi carvings to the Shepparton Art Museum) and I'm continuing to sell works beyond and through to Christmas.
Most notably, I have personally noticed a strong inclination from buyers and sellers to shift towards private treaty sale (against offering at auction). Interestingly for the seller, the reduced commission was not necessarily the main motivation for this, nor was it the risk of the work selling below market value (which often happens when artworks are given low estimates to attract bidders at auction). The most important factor in seller's minds was not wanting to expose their work to the open market - as they know that if a work goes unsold at auction, it has very little chance selling again within 5 or more years.
Similarly, buyers are now coming to me prepared to pay a premium for works that have not been exposed to the open market through auction. As buyers are now seeing great potential for significant growth and resale, for certain artists and objects, acquisition through private sale removes any listed auction result associated with sale. Auction results are heavily relied upon by industry experts to establish market values of works of art, and if a work has no traceable auction history, it cannot be held back by this history. In the past several months, I have established several new record prices for major works, simply because they were completely fresh to the market, unencumbered by previous results, and having the buyers that are astutely aware of the added value that this lack of past exposure can bring - and they are prepared to pay for it.
Major contemporary Indigenous works of art are now, once again, gaining some traction. And it has been a long time coming - of all the segments in Indigenous art, this one area has suffered the most in recent years. Several notable results are the Warlimpirrnga in Sotheby's London, which sold to an American collector for £167,000 including Buyer’s Premium (IBP) (AU$286,471) followed up by a solid price in October for a major work by Naata from the Luczo Collection at Deutscher and Hackett which was bought by a Melbourne collector for $146,400 IBP. These results reflect the fact that these works are irreplaceable - you can't just go out and get another one. And both works are arguably the artists' greatest.
This will be the theme moving forward. Over the past 7 years the Indigenous market in particular has been held back by a lack of quality stock. But major works are now finally coming up (through both Private sale and Auction platforms) due to strengthening international connections and the lower Australian dollar. Exceptional and irreplaceable works will be met with equally exceptional results.
The same applies for non-Indigenous Australian art. Works of exceptional quality and freshness, backed by impeccable history will be applauded in the marketplace.Take the recent record result for Charles Blackman’s Game of Chess sold at Sotheby’s Australia earlier this month for $1,475,000 ($1,799,500 IBP). Though not especially ‘fresh’, having previously sold at Bonhams & Goodman in 2009 for $600,000 ($720,000 IBP), this painting could be considered one of the artist’s pinnacle works from his most celebrated Alice series and deserved every penny of that result. Another exceptional painting, also handled by Sotheby’s Australia, was Arthur Streeton’s Sydney Harbour 1907 which sold for $1,700,000 ($2,074,000 IBP) in August – the top price achieved for an Australian painting at auction this year.
The fact that middle-range works have not had this same boost in consumer sentiment is evident in the recent restructuring of the art department at Mossgreen, with Paul Sumner citing a plateau of stock levels. This, combined with the dwindling market support for mid-range works, appears to be a reoccurring theme; Menzies’ recently decided to cancel its December art auction for the same reason.
The top-end is clearly where it is at. In the second half of 2016 I made the decision to ‘raise the bar’ in my business model and focus entirely on the top-end of the market. Looking ahead to 2017, I will continue with this model – offering only the most exceptional artworks backed by impeccable provenance in the form of Quarterly Listings, an Annual Catalogue and an expanded Private Sales platform – in order to meet the demand for A-grade material. I believe maintaining this high standard is the best way to continue bringing confidence back to the market and ensure a strong and sustainable future for Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous art.
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