Auckland's art scene is set for a hammering with the opening next week of a new auction house run by four former senior employees of longtime player Webb's. The new contenders, Art + Object (A+O), are vowing to target a new generation of collectors, offer work by contemporary artists who have produced post-1990, and rejuvenate what they see as a shrinking, stagnant market.
They also plan to hold specifically themed sales, including ceramics, tribal arts, antiques and decorative arts, photographs, 20th century design and sculpture - whatever they like, because they can.
A+O, positioning itself as "The 21st Century Auction House", holds its first sale on Thursday in 550sq m premises in Abbey Rd, Newton. They have placed the operation in an area of the central city which A+O managing director Hamish Coney brands - with a laugh - "West Bank" in contrast to the "East Bank" occupied by traditional Newmarket-Remuera-Parnell auction houses Webb's, Cordy's, Dunbar Sloane and the International Art Centre.
A+O is a four-man limited liability company, with Coney joined by director-owners and equal shareholders James Parkinson, Ross Millar and Ben Plumbly, all former Webb's department heads who resigned last November, creating a sensation in the gossipy Auckland auction scene.
Millar and Parkinson respectively clocked up 12 and 14 years' service at Webb's, and Plumbly, the son of Dunedin antiques expert Trevor, worked in the company's art department for two years. Their ages range from early-30s to mid-40s.
Coney was also briefly with Webb's, employed as the general manager and who, after a year at the family-owned firm, quit in 2004 over what he describes as "quite significant differences of opinion".
Although Coney adds that the issue is now "ancient history", Plumbly points out that Coney's relationship with the three of them at Webb's was the catalyst for the new business. "It's what happened, it's part of where we're at now."
"When we three left Webb's, it seemed an unusual announcement," recalls Millar. "We hadn't planned for it to be like that. James and I both worked under Hamish when he was general manager at Webb's and we very much appreciated what he brought to that scene then.
"James and I were very, very sad to see him go. We knew how good Hamish was, and when he approached us individually, we were very keen to come on board. Between us we do have longevity in the industry - not only in hands-on in mine and James' examples but in family background - and Hamish has an abiding passion for the arts."
Plumbly sees A+O as doing "something very new, very different" in offering carefully defined contemporary art in its first specialist sale.
"Contemporary art is a term that's been bandied about in this country, designating anything from Pat Hanly and McCahon to today as contemporary art. Overseas, contemporary art is something in line with 'of now', very much younger. McCahon is what we would call 'modern'. We have taken the term to mean art that is produced after 1990.
"Contemporary art is what I feel closest to, it's nearest my age, but I also feel it's been underdone severely by the secondary market. The major auction players haven't been interested because there hasn't been the commission. If you can sell a McCahon or a Hotere for $200,000, there's a lot of commission there. But if you are selling a Liz Maw or a Peter Robinson [two artists featured in the first sale, at estimations ranging from $10,000-$20,000] there is not the commission.
"Plus, it's about building a market. It's what people our age want - it's what we want to own. I've sold at the art sales at Webb's for 2 1/2 years and I've looked out at the room and been staggered that I've been the youngest person in the room. So for our business to succeed, we need to bring on board younger collectors because it's a marketplace that's shrinking."
Millar agrees that the traditional marketplace is aging. "But over here, we feel that generational shift. We are near galleries like Michael Lett, Ivan Anthony, Starkwhite, Objectspace, Artspace. Being over on this side of town, there is a younger property-investing change from the Remuera side of town. Those walls of the collectors in Remuera are groaning under the weight of earlier art - Goldies, McCahons, whatever, and their walls may be filled."
"But there is a generation of younger people not interested in that type of art," observes Plumbly. "There are some major collectors over on this side of town who can get more over here, filling the walls of people who live in Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Westmere, Cox's Bay, Kingsland, Avondale even."
The response towards A+O by the established auction houses in Auckland has been warm, overall, although Plumbly observes that, "personally, we have had a much different response every day."
International Arts Centre director Andrew Grigg says, "I support them. I know all of them, they are all intelligent and enthusiastic people and I wish them all the best. There will be overlaps but we are just going to carry on and do what we do well. Their main competition is going to come from someone like Webb's."
Webb's general manager Sophie Coupland says, "The fact that they believe the contemporary market is strong enough to support a new business is great as far as we are concerned because it is a vote of confidence for the contemporary market.
"We understand that piece of the market and we intend to continue to dominate in that field. They are trying very hard to differentiate themselves from the rest of the players, us included, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts, what they are doing is not that different."
With which A+O's Coney would disagree. "These people [Parkinson, Plumbly and Millar] started up Webb's modern design sales, started the popular culture sales, ran the first photography sale so all the intellectual property sits in this room . . the big thing about this business is we don't have to ask permission. We've got 50 years experience between us. We've each got individual strengths and disciplines. If we think there's an interesting path to go down, we don't have to ask someone if we can do it."
Says Herald auction columnist Don Milne, "The Auckland auction scene has seen quite a shake-up in recent years, with Dunbar Sloane arriving from Wellington and one of his key lieutenants Andrew Grigg taking over Cordy's and placing more emphasis on art.
"But this new group has the potential to really stir things up. They are all well-respected and well-regarded in their fields. They face two big challenges - establishing a secondary market in the area that interests them most, contemporary art, which means finding a new crop of buyers willing to look beyond the dealer galleries, and acquiring a continuous flow of good stock.
"It's a brave thing to do, and it will take time. It may fall over. But if it can create that new market in Auckland, among younger people and for younger artists, lots of people will wish it well."
With an opening party last night and Thursday's upcoming auction, A+O is already making a splash. "Auction is theatre and drama on the night," says Millar, "but it is dirty, hard work, a huge amount of effort behind the scenes.
"It is not necessarily a huge income-earner and we are not in it to make huge amounts of money. But it is wonderful to walk in here and know that down the track we will be handling this in the way we want to."