Behind the Canvas: Tracking down a masterpiece

Art dealer Warwick Henderson's new book Behind the Canvas delves into the world of the art market in New Zealand. We extract an edited version of chapter, How to Find a Bargain.

Top, Poi Dance, 1952 by A. Lois White. Photo / Supplied
Top, Poi Dance, 1952 by A. Lois White. Photo / Supplied

It was a sultry evening on Dominion Rd, Auckland, in 1965. A swarm of black beetles had invaded the paths in the heartland of Auckland's second-hand and bric-a-brac territory. Maybe it was a fortuitous omen. The old villas and bungalows of surrounding Mt Eden, Sandringham, Kingsland and Epsom were fertile ground for the second-hand dealers who occupied the two-storey Edwardian buildings in Balmoral, Dominion and Valley Rds. One dealer, a Dutch immigrant, had arrived in 1952 with his wife and little more than the clothes on their backs. By 1970 he claimed to be a millionaire and had emigrated to California with the proceeds of years of discoveries and bargains from the attics and cellars of local houses.

As my brother and I played "you're-a-loser-if-you-squish-a-beetle" along the footpaths, we made our way with our father to one of the first ports of call, Variety Auctions, run by another immigrant from Europe. He was knowledgeable about furniture, but not art. By the time my brother and I arrived at the door, my father was already negotiating between two and sixpence and five shillings for a large colonial landscape mounted in a crumbling gilded plaster frame.

A deal seemed to be finalised surprisingly quickly, and no sooner had we arrived than we were ushered out, with my brother and I carrying out Mt Tarawera and Lake Rotoiti by Moonlight - a major oil painting by Charles Blomfield. It was worth the equivalent of at least two months' wages for my father in 1965 (about $200 then; now about $30,000), so it was a great discovery. The excitement of that find has stayed with me. It was, I guess, one of the formative experiences from which my love for buying and selling art developed ...

I have enjoyed my fair share of discoveries over the past 40 years. One of the earliest was a superb J.C. Hoyte, similar to the work View of Auckland Harbour from Mt Hobson, Remuera in the collection at the Auckland Art Gallery. I came across it in my early days of attending art auctions in Australia in the late 1970s. It was catalogued as a Scottish Highland Scene, but I recognised it as a painting of Auckland Harbour from Shore Rd in Remuera. It sold for $150, but was worth approximately $10,000 - even back then ...

In the case of the Lois White painting Poi Dance (c. 1952), having studied the artist's output I recognised it as an important work. But when I saw it in a minor auction in 1982, it had been given little credence or attention and I purchased it for $750. White (1903-83) was one of the few New Zealand figurative artists painting in the mid-20th century. This is not entirely surprising, given that both the major art competitions at the time, the Bledisloe Medal and the Kelliher Award, promoted landscape painting. Lois White taught at Elam Art School until 1963, but by the 1950s her style was considered "old school" and her religious allegories anachronistic. While her oeuvre consisted largely of stylised figurations of religious allegories, it was her painting of social commentary such as War Makers (1937) and her controversial The Fleet's In (1945) which merited the most attention.

Lois White had an eye not only for political comment, but nationalism as well. In reaction perhaps to the horrors of two world wars, by the 1950s a collective spirit, led by artists and writers, was heralding the dawn of a new age. Referring to her painting War Makers, the artist stated that "the main idea behind the composition is the injustice done to youth, by the decision of the older generation to have wars and send their sons to be slaughtered and maimed, while many grow fat on the proceeds".

There is some truth to that, but ... it was generally wise to keep them to yourself. Conscientious objectors were jailed and sent to labour camps during World War II in New Zealand. In the 1940s there was little time or demand for art, and White's intellectual paintings were in the main given no more than lip service. Consequently, there are possibly less than half a dozen works of significance.

White could be pigeon-holed as a "radical realist painter" - described by author and art connoisseur R. Haese as those who "often begin as good artists and end up as poor politicians". These works are nevertheless important, reflecting the jingoism, politics and nationalistic fervour of wartime. Poi Dance, while apolitical, I consider a truly iconic work, if not a masterpiece, and is arguably one of the most significant paintings White completed. It is not only perfectly executed, but is an enduring subject, never captured so well before or since. I once said "sentimentality has no value" when it comes to valuing art. I was wrong. Now in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, it would be valued at more than $75,000 ...

Doris Lusk was influenced by such artists as Rita Angus, James Cook and John Weeks. They introduced architectural elements into their compositions, such as buildings, bridges, barns and railway stations, as a contrast to the raw and mountainous New Zealand landscape. The Pumping Station is a masterpiece of simplicity and contrast, where an iconic art deco building is set against the barren foothills of Christchurch. In 1980, this work and Tobacco Fields were two of my favourite paintings. I was keen to find one, so I decided to visit Dunedin and Christchurch in the hope of tracking one down. I knew they were extremely difficult to find, if not impossible. In Christchurch after a few days of ferreting and digging around, I found that only her more recent watercolours were being shown for sale. I wasn't too worried as I had managed to pick up a couple of superb Trevor Moffitts from the Father series of oil paintings, and subsequently the drive on to Dunedin was a rather light-hearted one. There I checked out the galleries and bric-a-brac shops, picking up a few collectibles and antique toys but I had not yet turned up an early Lusk.

The next day, in scorching 35C January heat, I decided to continue the search, despite the urge to find a swimming pool. I headed to the Octagon off the main street in the city to an upstairs gallery, where there was an exhibition of recent and overworked abstracts. The gallery rooms upstairs were like an oven, but I persevered and asked the salesperson if they had any early resales of Doris Lusk in their storeroom.

"Actually, we do have one work, but it is quite old and not really in the style the artist is now practising," she said. "What is it?" I asked.

"Oh, an early oil, from 1950, of a bridge and buildings with the Port Hills in the background."

Trying to conceal my intense interest, I asked if I could take a look at it. "Yes, of course. It's somewhere in the storeroom," she said.

Minutes passed, which seemed like an eternity as I began to feel a trickle of sweat work its way from under my shirt collar. When the painting appeared, I could hardly believe my eyes. It looked almost like the long-lost pair to The Pumping Station, but was much larger - about 1000 mm long and 750 mm high. The beautifully chiselled cream-and-blue Port Hills were a superb backdrop to a bridge and buildings in the foreground. Looking slightly uninterested, I asked the price.

"Four thousand. It's an early work and very hard to get." They obviously knew it was of some value, but before a meteor, power blackout or total eclipse could strike, I asked: "Would you take a cheque?" Very accommodatingly, they did. At $4000 the painting could possibly be considered expensive for the time, when her work was selling for less than $1000 at auction. Nevertheless, I walked past the Octagon on that hot January afternoon, wearing not only a damp shirt but a smile. This painting is now in a private collection and would be conservatively valued at $75,000.

Edited extract reproduced with permission from Behind the Canvas by Warwick Henderson (New Holland, $45).

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 29 Jul 2014 18:41:12 Processing Time: 511ms