Belle-Île indeed: Record smashed in biggest sale in a decade

Elizabeth Fortescue, Australian Financial Review, 23 August 2023

The auction price record for Australian Impressionist paintings was broken when John Peter Russell’s vividly coloured Souvenir de Belle-Île, (Marianna Russell with Goats, Goulphar, Belle-Île), 1897, sold for $3,927,273 at a blockbuster sale in Melbourne last week that was the highest by value in a decade.

Deutscher and Hackett’s catalogue estimate for the work, which measures a generous 65 cm by 81.5 cm, was $1.5 million to $2.5 million. Souvenir de Belle-Île had been “much admired by everybody”, veteran auctioneer Roger McIlroy said when he introduced the highly anticipated lot.

The work by the Australian boasting the closest ties to Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse (the Dutchman and Russell were close friends after meeting in Paris, and Russell is credited with teaching Matisse about colour) has rarely been seen by anyone outside of the family who has owned it since 1897.

Not only did the Russell picture set a new record, Important Australian and International Fine Art was the highest grossing mixed-vendor sale ever held in Australia, Deutscher and Hackett’s Melbourne executive director Chris Deutscher told Saleroom.

The auction totalled $15.44 million, including 25 per cent buyers premium, with 55 of the 67 works selling on the night. One work sold after the auction.

For context, this is still less than the highest grossing single-owner sale, achieved by Bonhams in 2013 when it sold Australian television pioneer Reg Grundy’s art collection for $19.2 million.

Deutscher and Hackett’s big draw card was, of course, Souvenir de Belle-Île, Russell’s portrait of his wife Marianna on the island in Brittany, France, where the couple lived for many years.

“It was a central magnet for the whole auction,” Deutscher told Saleroom. “There were six quite keen bidders on it. Six bidders at or above $2 million is a very strong market.”

Souvenir de Belle-Île was a gift from Russell to his good friend, Dr William Maloney, in the year it was painted. The pair had hiked together through Europe. After Maloney returned to Melbourne, the painting stayed in the family until the August 16 auction.

Deutscher said the buyer was a “seasoned” collector whose interest was in exceptional artworks. Souvenir de Belle-Île will remain in Australia.

The other four top-priced paintings of the Deutscher and Hackett sale were also bought by private collectors. These were Sidney Nolan’s Early Morning Township, 1955, $2.7 million (including premium, as do all figures in this article); Brett Whiteley’s South Coast After the Rain, 1984, $2.2 million; Fred Williams’ Landscape with Creek Bed, 1976-77, $981,818, and Cootamundra Wattles – Botanist’s Garden, 1975, also by Williams, $662,727.

Deutscher believes the success of Souvenir de Belle-Île could tempt more top-end items out of trophy homes and boardrooms.

“We’ve got some nice conversations going on at the moment,” he said. “There’s certainly no hesitation at all from vendors selling into this market.”

As to why that would be, Deutscher said art “cheers people up”.

It also shows that art is now seen as a “sensible investment”, he said, and that buyers at the upper end are not suffering from Australia’s regime of high interest rates.

Turning to living artists in the sale, new auction records were achieved by Sydney’s Del Kathryn Barton and Melbourne’s Bruce Armstrong.

Barton’s large painting, of pink planets, 2014, brought $527,727. It’s a complex work featuring a many-breasted female protagonist, a snake, a kangaroo, and a general impression of wild fecundity.


Armstrong’s twin bird-of-prey sculptures were equally imposing and impressive. Guardians, 2009-2021, a pair of maquettes for Armstrong’s commission for the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Melbourne, fetched $270,000. Each measuring two metres high, Armstrong’s sculptures are in bronze and timber.