Your Business: Art auction house beats the odds

By Gill South

James Parkinson , Ben Plumbly and Hamish Coney have proved the nay sayers wrong. Photo /  Greg Bowker
James Parkinson , Ben Plumbly and Hamish Coney have proved the nay sayers wrong. Photo / Greg Bowker

When Hamish Coney, James Parkinson and Ben Plumbly started the contemporary New Zealand art auction house Art + Object in early 2007, there was an assumption in the market that it wouldn't last.

They were going up against well-established players such as Webb's, Dunbar Sloane and Cordy's and were on the brink of a world recession.

But the three young men, who had worked together at Webb's, had seen a gap in the market for New Zealand contemporary art and applied arts and objects.

"We have seen and contributed to a complete change in the last five years - an appreciation of New Zealand- made things, from Maori artefacts to New Zealand design," says Coney.

"We could have failed but the market place was prepared to give us a go," he says. The firm is formally celebrating its fifth birthday this winter and has become a popular place for babyboomers to sell their contemporary New Zealand art collections.

Art + Object had its first auction in May 2007 and is about to have its 54th.

Due for auction this week, on March 22, is the Russell and Shirley Hodgson Collection of Contemporary Art which includes work by major New Zealand artists such as Michael Parekowhai, Fiona Pardington, Sara Hughes and Jacqueline Fraser. Ross Morrison, David and Angela Wright and Michael Seresin have also sold private collections through Art + Object.

Art + Object, which did $6.5 million of business last year, has four sources of revenue. These are fees at auction from the vendors and buyers, then as the leading valuer of New Zealand art - this is Parkinson's domain - and lastly its consultancy work for corporate and private clients.

"Last year we led the New Zealand art market. We sold more art at auction than any other business," says Coney, a 2009 finalist for Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year.

Last year, Art + Object sold $4.65 million of art, achieving the market's three highest prices on works by Colin McCahon, Bill Hammond and Donald Binney.

"2011 was a massive year for us. We have gone from surviving to where we don't have to worry about next month," says Plumbly.

The company,based at its auction rooms in Abbey St, Newton, has three full-time staff besides the founders. It is to employ two new staff members, in accounting and customer service.

Plumbly, from the Plumbly's Dunedin auction house, has employed his mother Pam as the rare books expert and Parkinson's assistant valuer.

This year, the business will be relaunching its online platform with the help of BKA Interactive. Art+ Object spends $300,000 a year on catalogues.

The company is attracting overseas buyers through running live auctions online. The recent Asian Art sale was a phenomenal success, with around 100 bidders online. "We are the first New Zealand auction house to stream our auctions live on the web, with live bidding, and bidding via phones," says Coney.

The three founders say they are at a crossroads. "The question is whether we continue to trade in what we love or extend to other areas like fine wine and jewellery," says Parkinson.

"The philosophy of the company is to stay small. We always wanted to do it with less and do it better - that's why people like the Hodgsons have come to us. They don't have to talk to a PA to get to us," says Plumbly. There is that direct connection between the vendor and the auction house's experts.

- NZ Herald

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