A history changing Australian art collection goes to auction

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 21st July, 2022

It often takes far-sighted visionaries to change the course of history – never more true than for the Australian art industry.

In the late 1980s, legendary Melbourne-based artworld figures Dr Joseph Brown (1918-2009) and Professor Bernard Smith (1916-2011) sensed that important Australian artworks were significantly undervalued and surreptitiously being snapped up by overseas buyers instead of remaining in the country.

After lengthy discussions, they convinced superannuation giant Cbus (then BUS) that preservation of Australia’s artistic heritage was a worthy long-term investment.

In 1992, Cbus established its own Collection of Australian Art with Dr Brown as sole art advisor with his stipulation the paintings be on long-term loan to selected regional galleries.

The rest is history and over the next 15 years Dr Brown helped build a comprehensive collection of the best Australian colonial, impressionist, modernists, classic modern, contemporary and Aboriginal artworks in the land.  

Over the years, the collection has been part of several dedicated travelling exhibitions organised by the Latrobe Regional Gallery with selected works also featuring in major shows.

Now, the collection is being auctioned in Melbourne through art auction house Deutscher and Hackett – with the first 100 paintings (classified as highlights) from 7pm Wednesday July 27 at 105 Commercial Road, South Yarra.

This will be followed on August 9, 16 and 23 by three more auctions covering contemporary, traditional and modern and Indigenous art in the collection.

Not surprisingly, the highest catalogue estimate painting (the front cover feature) at $600,000-$800,000 is Sidney Nolan’s (1917-1992) Crossing the River, 1964 (lot 31).

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) share the next highest estimate of $250,000-$350,000 with respectively Balmain and Leichardt, from Holtermann’s Tower, c 1921 (lot 8) and Shoalhaven Riverbanks and Large Stones, 1981 (lot 38).

Every iconic modern Australian artist is featured in the auction including such household names as Fred Williams, John Olsen, John Brack, Jeffrey Smart, Rosalie Gascoigne, Margaret Preston and Brett Whiteley – along with impressionists like Tom Roberts, Rupert Bunny and Fred McCubbin, and colonial painters such as Eugene von Guerard, William Charles Piguenit  and Conrad Martens.

Buyers will be jumping out of their skins from lot 1 when von Guerard’s (1811-1901) On the Americkan Creek Near Wollongong, c1859-61 (estimate $80,000-$120,000) goes under the hammer.

Not often seen on the secondary market are any paintings by Piguenit (1836-1914), despite the many accolades he received during the late 19th century.

“When the Glow is in the West”, Lane Cove from Above the Bridge, 1893 (lot 5) carries the higher estimate ($100,000-$150,000) of his two works in the auction and is indicative of his fascination with atmospheric effects and his determination to reveal the grandeur of remote landscapes to urban audiences.

The same estimate has been placed on Roberts (1856-1931) Portrait of a Young Girl, 1909 (lot 9). Roberts was renowned for his portraits (which comprise more than a third of his works) – not only for their physical likeness but because he could capture their mood and character.

Margaret Preston’s (1875-1963) is known for her extremely colourful still life paintings and Coastal Gums, 1929 (lot 21) is no exception with a $180,000-$240,000 catalogue estimate.

Other great works include Russell Drysdale’s (1912-1981) The Fossicker, 1949 (lot 28), Godfrey Miller’s (1893-1964) Trees in Quarry, c152-56 (lot 30), John Olsen’s Landscape Hanging on to an Edge, 1987, (lot 39) Fred Williams Sapling Forest, c1960-62 (lot 40) and Jeffrey Smart’s Children Playing, 1965 (lot 47).

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