Art liquidation sale delivers Cbus bumper $8m return

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 4 August 2022

Seven fresh records, including one that has propelled modernist painter Margaret Preston into the half-million-dollar club, have made the first of the Cbus art collection auctions a resounding success.

Preston’s Coastal Gums, 1929, a brilliant spray of red blossoms from the native Corymbia ficifolia tree, sold for $500,000 (hammer), more than double its high estimate, and more than five times its hammer price when it last came up at auction 22 years ago.

With buyer’s fees included, the painting’s new owner paid $613,636 for this vibrant piece of Australian art history, which was much admired during viewings in Sydney and Melbourne.

Records were also set for works by Godfrey Miller, Eveline Syme, Lindsay Bernard Hall, Thea Proctor, Arthur Boxall and Murray Griffin at the Melbourne sale last Wednesday night at Deutscher and Hackett.

But it was the Preston that flew highest above its estimate in the sale of 100 highlights from the 300-plus Cbus art collection. Deutscher and Hackett’s co-executive director, Chris Deutscher, had a feeling the Preston would go well amid the surging appreciation for the artist’s still lifes. But not quite this well.

“I didn’t think it would go off to that extent,” Deutscher said. “But it’s not unreasonable to think of a top Preston at that price – and it was a dazzling picture – when you have new works by Cressida Campbell being pitched for $420,000 ... Preston is such a prominent figure in Australian art she deserves to be half a million and up. It’s an adjustment to pricing which is well overdue.”

Preston was, of course, an important influence on Campbell, who also had a work in the Cbus sale, an early acrylic painting on paper, which rose $2000 above its high estimate to sell for $9000. When the painting was last at auction in 1991, it hammered for $500.

The work of modernists was much in favour, such as that of New Zealand-born Miller. His cubist-like painting Trees in A Quarry, created from about 1952 to 1956, soared above its high estimate of $200,000, to sell for $380,000 (hammer). Considered one of the reclusive artist’s best works, the painting was formerly in the Mertz Collection of Australian art, and exhibited in Washington DC and widely in Australia, giving it added prestige.

“Of its kind, it was the most exceptional work in the auction,” Deutscher said. Trees in A Quarry has more than doubled in price since 2000 when it sold at auction for $180,000 (hammer).

Syme’s Tuscan Landscape, another modernist work, from the 1920s, achieved four times its high estimate, to sell for $120,000. The painting is double-sided, with an image of Siena on the back, giving the new vendor two paintings for the price of one.

Boxall’s Building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1930, was certain to attract attention on nostalgic value alone. It sold for $38,000 (hammer), more than double its high estimate of $15,000 and almost 10 times its 1990 hammer price of $4000. The painting had been on long-term loan to the Benalla Art Gallery in Victoria.

“It’s a really striking image of the harbour bridge, it’s a dynamic modernist work for a fairly modest realist artist, so again people responded to the energy of the image,” Deutscher said.

Buyers also responded to Proctor’s immensely cheery The Seaside, circa 1923, which climbed $27,000 above its high estimate to sell for $42,000 (hammer). Proctor was a peer and colleague of Preston.

Hall creates a far more restrained and shadowy ambience in his painting In the Studio, circa 1924, but it too was well received, selling for $60,000, against a high estimate of $35,000, doubling in price since it was last auctioned 22 years ago.

Hall was the director and painting instructor at the National Gallery School in Melbourne for 43 years, and this painting, as the title suggests, depicts his studio in Melbourne, on the southern side of the State Library of Victoria. The Royal Exhibition Building’s dome can be glimpsed through the studio’s large arched window.

Hall used fellow artist Septimus Power as his central model. Hall’s wife, Grace, and their children are also depicted. And while we’re busy making connections, Preston studied at the National Gallery School, first under Frederick McCubbin then under Hall.

The auction’s cover lot, Sidney Nolan’s Crossing the River, 1964, did not disappoint, rising $80,000 above its high estimate to sell for $880,000 (hammer), making it a $1 million work with the addition of buyer’s costs (25 per cent of the hammer price inclusive of GST).

Arthur Boyd’s Shoalhaven Riverbanks and Large Stones, 1981, also performed extremely well, doubling its low estimate to sell for $500,000 (hammer).