Menzies final art auction for 2015 was characterised by sensational results for the almost completely unknown colonial painter, Thomas Balcombe (1810-1861).
The results underscore the enduring interest for early Australian depictions of Aboriginal life.
This included a top price for Lot 61 of $98,182 (including buyer’s premium) for a scene of an Aborigine fishing by torchlight painted in 1853.
The two small paintings and five drawings of variable quality were of equal interest to anthropologists and aesthetes and were the subject of a determined battle between two female bidders until they sold at levels four times, then five times their estimates, with each successive lot breaking the artist’s auction price record along the way.
The seven items, formerly owned by a direct descendant of the artist, were collectively estimated by Menzies at $44,000 (low estimate total) but achieved a breathtaking total of $325,227 (including buyer’s premium).
Balcombe’s previous record of $30,500 (including buyer’s premium) for an oil painting and $650 (including buyer’s premium) for a work on paper were totally eclipsed in the tense auction adding another remarkable chapter to the eventful story of the artist’s life.
The sale brought to a conclusion a very successful season for Menzies, which has consolidated its pre-eminent position in the Australian art auction market.
In 2015 Menzies sold $31.92 million, taking first place in the market.
“We will go into 2016 having led the market for all but two of the last nine years,” said company executive chairman Rod Menzies.
Lot 36, Menzies’ December cover painting - a very fine example of William Robinson’s Farmyard series - expected to sell for between $220,000 and $280,000, fetched $270,000 (including buyer’s premium). The painting is destined for a private museum collection.
Melbourne artist (and nowadays national favourite John Brack) continues the intercity rivalry with Sydney’s Brett Whiteley. Lot 41 Adagio, a large and striking example from the Ballroom Dancer series, painted in 1967 at the height of Brack’s career, achieved a very respectable hammer price of $750,000 or $920,454 once the buyer’s premium was added.
Lately, these titans have dominated the Australian art market. However, in the absence of a major Whiteley in the sale, Brack claimed the high ground.
Jeffrey Smart, Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale also got good prices for quality paintings, with the Nolan selling to a Melbourne private collector and the Drysdale to a Sydney collection.
Several major items including works by Smart and Fred McCubbin were sold to a business syndicate.