Religious art tops the billing at Australian art auction

Justin O’Brien’s (1917-1996) Madonna c1959 (lot 26) achieved its predicted artist’s auction record following frenetic bidding at Menzies Australian and International Art sale on June 29 in Melbourne.

The price of $417,272.73 including buyer’s premium (near the top of the catalogue estimate) shows art lovers are willing to pay top dollar for religious paintings if the subject and work are sufficiently striking and to their liking.

This result has certainly placed O’Brien on the auction map in an environment where Menzies predicts the market is starting to turn slightly downwards.

There are probably a few reasons for this. The global COVID-19 pandemic locked down populations for lengthy periods over two years from March 2020 – so with little else on which to spend money, more people flocked to the art market.

Now that the brakes are off and travel is much easier, there are other pursuits to soak up available finances. Rising interest rates might also be having an effect as home owners are forced to deal with increasing mortgage repayments.

Nevertheless, well known and popular Australian artists are still holding their own. A good example is Jeffrey Smart’s (1921-2013) Level Crossing 1997 (lot 27) which changed hands for $650,454.55 – the top hammer price on the night ($530,000) and close enough to its higher catalogue estimate of $600,000.

In third spot was William Delafield Cook’s (1936-2015) Waterfall 2004 (lot 25), bringing $233,181.82 once bidding was finished – well above its $120,000-$160,000 catalogue estimate.

Two William Robinson paintings might have left their vendors with mixed feelings. The first, Chooks 1980 (lot 21) achieved a healthy, without being spectacular, result of $220,909.09, while his Nimbin Rocks in Fog 1996 (lot 31) at $150,000 ($184,090.91 with BP) scraped into the bottom of its estimate range.

Tim Storrier’s The Night Run (Star Trail) 2007 (lot 28) – a large and impressive work – had no such issues as it sold for $208,636.36 right near the top of its estimate range.

Other strong finishers included Rosalie Gascoigne’s City Block 1996 (lot 34) and Clement Meadmore’s (1929-2005) Warm Valley 1994 (lot 36) – each of which changed hands for $135,000.

At $110,454.55, Gascoigne also filled equal ninth spot with her work entitled Thermals 1998 (lot 35) bringing the same price as Margaret Olley’s (1923-2011) Wildflowers in the Kitchen 1998-99 (lot 22).

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