Art for sale: Auction market defies the downturn

By Lesley Springall

Hard times haven't deterred auction-goers from putting up their hands to buy art, reports Lesley Springall

The art market is remaining strong despite the recession, experts say. Photo / Paul Estcourt
The art market is remaining strong despite the recession, experts say. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Electric green shimmers through swirls of black, splashes of royal blue and shades of purple: the giant 2m square painting by Australian artist Dale Frank virtually leaps off the wall at Auckland auction house Art+Object's Newton saleroom. The glossy catalogue suggests a price of $38,000 to $55,000.

Auctioneer Ben Plumbly starts the bidding at $20,000. Within minutes bidding reaches the reserve - the bottom of the guide range. A few minutes more and it has broken through the top of the range. Someone is bidding from the back of the room, someone over the phone. All other bidders have dropped out. About 80 members of Auckland's well-groomed contemporary art-collector set - many as colourful as the paintings before them - swivel in their seats, craning for a glimpse of the bidder at the back of the room. The hammer falls: "Sold at $71,000." There is clapping and smiles, calls of "well done" and a palpable feeling of relief all round, as if the entire audience somehow had a hand in the sale of Frank's mystifyingly-titled work, Ultimogeniture Brachylogy Brain Fever.

The Frank sale comes about half-way through A+O's auction of Russell and Shirley Hodgson's contemporary art collection. It's an eclectic grouping: a huge, almost photographically accurate portrait of Ralph Hotere by Martin Ball rubs shoulders with two screenprinted brown paper bags with eyeholes, one labelled "Maori", the other "Pakeha", by Wayne Youle. There are oil paintings by Seraphine Pick and Judy Millar, bronze and glass sculptures by Kingsley Baird and Galia Amsel, a beautifully delicate painted steel dome by Neil Dawson and huge-eyed girls in acrylic on linen by Peter Stichbury.

Auckland businessman Russell Hodgson and his wife are "serious" collectors, says A+O managing director Hamish Coney. "They come to all the collections. They're not like Charles Saatchi; not that high profile, but they are quite well known."

The couple are apparently too shy to be interviewed, so Coney speaks on their behalf, explaining how unusual it is for people to put their entire collection up for sale.

For the Hodgsons, this is the second time they've done just that: when their collection reaches a certain size, they sell it and start again. They did it 12 years ago and they've just done it again because they sold the family home, says Coney. "People like the Hodgsons are important to the art market because as soon as they sell, they reinvest in new, younger artists."

The Hodgsons sold about 60 per cent of their collection at the A+O auction, grossing about $500,000 - not bad for a couple of hours mingling, a few glasses of wine and a gloriously glossy catalogue. The final tally includes an industry-standard buyers' premium of about 15 per cent added to each painting sold - bumping the final recorded sale price for Dale Frank's Brain Fever to $83,245 (including GST on the premium) - nearly double the artist's previous sale record.

Typically, New Zealand auction houses sell between 40 and 70 per cent of what's on offer at auction, says Coney's business partner Ben Plumbly, so 60 per cent sold isn't bad going for the Hodgsons' collection. The auction house pockets a vendor's fee - about 10 per cent of the final hammer price, plus the 15 per cent buyer's premium on each work. Like other auction houses, A+O holds an auction about once a month.

Coney, Plumbly and James Parkinson are the new kids on the block of New Zealand's art market. Celebrating the fifth anniversary of their first auction last month, A+O was the first new auction house in New Zealand for more than 30 years.

The founders came from Webb's, the self-proclaimed leader in New Zealand's auction market - though most of the bigger houses make similar claims. Webb's is typical of the bigger auction houses in selling a wide range of items: art, collectibles, jewellery, books, wine - even motorcycles.

Coney says they left Webb's because they wanted to do things differently; to adopt a more international model with more specialised auctions focused on a narrower genre of art. In A+O's case this is contemporary (post-1990) and modern (from about 1940 - though "modern" can include older works with a modern take). They also wanted to include more objects in their sales and to keep collections together or better group mixed collections.

Coney says there had previously been a bit of "an applied-arts ghetto" in New Zealand. "The traditional auction house method has been a bit like The Price is Right, which is whatever comes along in that two-month period goes into that catalogue. A+O has produced more tightly themed and more curatorially-driven catalogues."

Coney's office is the antithesis of A+O's large, light and airy gallery. Tucked away behind the main gallery space, the tiny windowless office is packed full of paintings, catalogues and books. Coney's desk overflows with piles of paperwork, and the multitude of Post-it notes on the walls resemble a contemporary art work in the making. Like all auction houses, he says, A+O on the surface is like a swan gliding gracefully, but underneath the legs are furiously paddling away.

Tighter theming of collections is the way of the world, claims Coney. But others say New Zealand is just too small to copy its peers in Europe. "We have 150 years of art; they have 1500 years," says Richard Thomson, director of the International Art Centre in Parnell, which specialises in fine art.

Sophie Coupland, a director of Webb's and head of its fine art department, says there is definitely more theming than there was. But rather than grouping collections by genre, Webb's tends to group its auctions by value. "Back in the day, in the 1980s, auctions did have things worth $100 and things worth $100,000 in the same auction. There's been far less of that in the last 10 years."

Webb's initiated affordable art sales about 15 years ago, separating out the lower value and less interesting works into what it calls its A2 category, meaning under $20,000. More recently it introduced an A3 level for artworks likely to sell for less than $2000.

Both Coupland and Thomson also dispute Coney's claim that it is becoming more common for collectibles or objects, such as sculpture, glassware and ceramics, to be included in "art auctions."

Photography is another disputed area. Well-known TV personality Dunbar Sloane Snr says it is creeping into art catalogues more and more, but is not yet included as a matter of course. The secondary art market, or the auction market - the primary market being new works sold through the country's many galleries - is still dominated by paintings and prints. Of the 25,000 to 30,000 items Dunbar Sloane sells each year through its Auckland and Wellington auction houses, however, only about 2000 to 2500 are categorised as fine art. But with many New Zealand artists now commanding $100,000-plus for their paintings, it's the big money earner, says Sloane Snr.

Mention the word "investment", however, and some art aficionados sigh.

"In five years of business I have not met one investor," says Coney. "Because my definition of an investor is someone who comes through the door and goes, 'I don't give a shit what I buy, you just tell me what's going to make money'. That's not how people think about art.

"If you want to speculate, buy gold. Most investors really don't care how they make their money. The difference with an art collector is they intensely and passionately do care about the culture they're involved in."

Though less dramatic, Coupland is equally derogatory about art-market speculation: "It's not healthy for a tiny market like New Zealand. It creates instability."

Before the global financial crisis, New Zealand had been experiencing something of an art-market bubble. Prices for some of our better-known modern artists such as Ralph Hotere were pushed to unsustainable levels, says Coupland. "If that sort of hype hadn't been around Hotere in the early 2000s, his market today would be more stable."

Works by Hotere and some other artists have fallen significantly since the recession hit, but in general the art market has been remarkably stable, returning a steady $15 million or so a year. But the nature of the market has changed, with collectors becoming far more discerning about what they buy and how much they pay for it, says Coupland. "The best of the best is selling really well, while the mediocre works are falling by the wayside. Collectors really are doing their homework and that's great for the market."

Though spurred by the recession, this narrowing reflects a maturing of the art market, says Coupland. Thomson agrees, adding that in a more mature market an artist's best works will always fetch a premium, and will continue to do so long into the future.

Thomson says the most sought after artist in New Zealand today is Charles Goldie, famous for his detailed portraits of Maori. Closely behind is the much more modern Colin McCahon, whose most popular works often combine words and pictures.

Also on the up, says Sloane Snr, are Pat Hanly, Bill Hammond and Shane Cotton. But it doesn't pay to generalise too much, he warns, as some works by an artist may be rising in popularity while others by the same artist are less sought after. If you own a 1980s bird picture by Don Binney, for example, you'll be very popular with the auction houses as they are highly sought after. But Binney's other paintings - like Goldie's little-known Paris scenes - won't fetch anywhere near as much as a bird or a Maori chief.

"Even then, if a Maori chief looks pretty angry and nasty, people won't pay as much for that as they would for a happier chief," says Sloane. "It's funny how little things like that make a big difference. If I try and sell a picture of a graveyard, it's bloody hard going. People just don't want to hang a graveyard in their house."

There's a very strong market for early topographical paintings of New Zealand, says Coupland. "Anything that depicts an early city, an early settlement and isn't a view of the Milford Sound that essentially looks the same today as it did 100 years ago."

Modernist painters Frances Hodgkins and Rita Angus are also sought after because they both broke new ground, says Coupland. "[Angus'] work really did deliver into the contemporary movement ... so they are historically important, but they are also very beautifully crafted and highly aesthetic, so they've kind of got everything going for them."

People buy art because they connect with it in some way, says Coupland. "Because of the reputation of the artist, because of the sentiment, the message, the political or cultural reference it has, because it talks to them about who they are; who they are as New Zealanders; who we are as a nation."

Apart from the old masters or the impressionists such as Degas, Monet or Renoir, which can be bought only by billionaires or nations - the Gulf state of Qatar recently set a record for a painting, paying US$250 million for Paul Cezanne's The Card Players - people tend to buy art from their own countries. Thus, New Zealanders buy New Zealand art. Coupland says there is a small market in Australia for McCahon and a small market in Britain for Hodgkins, because she lived there for a short time, but these days even Goldie tends to attract interest only from New Zealanders.

In the contemporary market, however, things are changing, says Coney, with more Australians looking at New Zealand contemporary art and vice versa - which is why Dale Frank's Brain Fever was able to set an Australasian record for the Australian artist despite being sold by an Auckland auction house.

"In the last five years the Berlin Wall between Australia and New Zealand has really, really come down," says Coney. "We've grown up. We're coming out a period of time where our contemporary art was about national identity. Now we're a lot freer."

The trend to promoting art auctions online, enabling online bidding and even video streaming of live auctions are helping break down the barriers. At present, A+O is the only New Zealand auction house to live video stream its auctions, allowing online bidders to participate as the auction happens, but most now enable online bidding and say it is increasingly important to their business.

Christopher Taylor, a director and co-founder of Ocula Auctions, Australasia's only dedicated online-only art auction site, says he and co-founder Simon Fisher set it up after some ad hoc auctions they ran proved popular. The auctions attract bidders from across the world, especially expats, says Taylor, and though the site has only been officially up and running for a few months, it is proving increasingly popular with sellers and buyers. "We are getting a lot of positive feedback, especially from people who don't live in the main metropolitan centres."

Overseas there are a growing number of online auction sites. Even eBay sells art, though you wouldn't call it "fine," says Taylor. Nor does it come with all the information or the checks and balances Ocula or the more traditional auction houses offer.

Overseas, even the big guns are playing more in the virtual world. Christie's made history at the end of last year when it sold part of Elizabeth Taylor's jewellery collection in an online-only sale. In an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph, Michael O'Neal, Christie's digital media director, said Christie's hoped the move would attract a new audience to its auctions. "Most people when they think of Christie's think of paintings which sell for US$40 million. But with this online-only sale, there are lots of affordable items which we think will bring a new group of buyers."

Coney echoes others, however, when he says he can't see A+O becoming cloud-based any time soon. "We love what we do. We love handling the art. You can't avoid the online platform, that's true, however - and it's a massive 'however' - the serious collector still wants to see the work. A photo online only gives you a fraction of the story; in the room you can see how the work's constructed, how the paint's applied, the type of paint and materials used - all of those things are absolutely material to your understanding of the work. You can't get that online."

That said, one of the new and growing genres of contemporary art, digital video work, should benefit from the move to online and the breakdown of traditional geographic boundaries. Video is one of the "new frontiers" of art, says Coney. "In the future I think we will have a pay-per-view video art channel. We will be watching art on our tablets."

Things are changing so fast in the art world that in a few years time what we consider to be "art" and what we collect will be far broader than it is today, he says. "It's going to broaden into ways we can't anticipate today. Art is about where the new frontier is and it's the job of the artist to tell us what that is."

But whatever your taste in art - traditional, modern, contemporary or perhaps whatever's around the corner - if you decide to take a punt in the art market do it because you love it, not because you think it's going to make you money, says Thomson. "After all, art is a tangible asset ... The worst that can happen is the thing ends up on your wall, and that's no bad thing."

New Zealand's highest prices at auction
Early 1980s to 2011

1. Let Be, Let Be - Colin McCAHON
$704,000

2. No. 2 - McCAHON
$671,000

3. Te Aho O Te Rangi Wharepu - C F GOLDIE
$583,000

4. Forty Winks - Rutene Te Uamairangi - GOLDIE $568,635

5. He Calls for Elias - McCAHON
$562,500

6. I Considered All the Acts of Oppression - McCAHON
$506,000

7. Still Life with Landscape - Frances HODGKINS
$451,000

8. Hori Pokai - Sleep, Tis a Gentle Thing - GOLDIE
$448,000

9. Te Aho, a Noted Waikato Warrior, 1905 - GOLDIE
$429,000

10. Tirangi II - Gordon WALTERS
$418,000

TOP 5
Last year's highest auction prices

1. He Calls for Elias - McCAHON
$562,500

2. Singer Songwriter - Bill HAMMOND
$316,250

3. Kotare Over Ratana Church, Te Kao - Don BINNEY
$303,750

4. Dawn/Water Poem - Ralph HOTERE
$287,500

5. A Midsummer Day, Maoriland Pokai - GOLDIE
$230,000

NZ art market turnover at auction[$million]
2007 $14.4
2008 $18.6
2009 $15.3
2010 $15.2
2011 $15.5

- NZ Herald

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