Contemporary Australian art



Every fortnight Artprice posts a new or updated ranking in its Alternate-Friday Top Series. The theme of today’s TOP article is the Top 10 auction results for Contemporary Australian art.

With the 20th best result for work of Contemporary sculpture in 2011, Ron MUECK is the leading Contemporary Australian artist on the secondary market. So what about other Australian artists… and what is the position of Contemporary aboriginal art in Australia, which saw a 15% increase in its auction revenue from Contemporary art in 2011?

Top 10 : best auction results for Contemporary Australian art

Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Ron MUECK $1117200 Bib Baby (1996) 28/06/2011 (Christie’s London)
2 Ron MUECK $786600 Man Under Cardigan (1998) 10/14/2011 (Christie’s London)
3 Ron MUECK $460000 Pinocchio (1996) 05/12/2005 (Phillips de Pury & CoNY)
4 Dorothy NAPANGARDI $342028 Mina Mina 03/19/2008 (Lawson-Menzies SYDNEY NSW)
5 Lin ONUS $290822 Water Lillies and Evening Reflections, Dingo Springs 03/15/2006 (Deutscher & Menzies MALVERN VIC)
6 Gordon BENNETT $282304 «Possession Island» (1991-1992) 07/24/2007 (Sotheby’s MELBOURNE VIC)
7 Ron MUECK $280000 Swaddled Baby (2002) 11/13/2008 (Christie’s NY)
8 Howard ARKLEY $277863 «Family Home» (1988) 03/26/2007 (Joel Fine Art ARMADALE)
9 Bronwyn OLIVER $273540 Tracery (2003) 03/25/2010 (Menzies Art Brands )
10 Howard ARKLEY $245224 «Mosaic Entrance» (1994) 12/05/2007 (Deutscher & Menzies MALVERN VIC)

Contemporary Australian art and its “star”.

Ron Mueck, the only Australian artist to have crossed the $1m threshold, has four places in this Top 10.
Mueck’s best auction result dates from June 2011 ($1.17m) and it made him the most expensive Australian Contemporary artist on the market. The work in question was a piece he created in 1996 entitled Big Baby which marked a turning point in the artist’s career.
In 1996, invited by the artist (and his mother-in-law) Paula REGO, he created a monumental sculpture at the centre of paintings by the English artist: Pinochio (sold in 2005 for $460,000, then the best result for Contemporary Australian art). This monumental and hyper-realist sculpture attracted the attention – like the rest of the artist’s work at the time – of the collector Charles Saatchi. The contrast between the realist precision and the unreal scale of Mueck’s works has the capacity to trigger emotions ranging from desolation to vulnerability and hope.
The work Big Baby amplifies these emotions, and juxtaposes, via the unreal enormity of the child, parental anguish with the surprising independence and conscience of the “giant” baby.
Even though Man Under Cardigan maintains a human scale, it still exudes an overwhelming feel of hyper-realism.
Created in 1998 ( several months after Big Baby), it sold in London a few months after Big Baby set the artist’s latest record, generating the artist’s second best-ever result.
Fetching $786,600, it contributed to a 2011 annual total auction revenue of over $1.98m giving the artist 98th place in the 2011 global ranking of Contemporary artists, the best position ever achieved by an Australian artist. In fact, having only seen 10 works go to auction in 13 years, the 3 works presented in 2011 was an exceptional volume. This rarity factor was one of the reasons collectors were so enthusiastic for Swaddled Baby when it was presented in 2008. Originating from a more recent series created in 2002, the work exceeded its low estimate by $80,000 when it fetched $280,000. The piece, occupying 1 square metre of floor space, was the first work by Mueck to be offered at auction since 2005!

Much less rare at auction (more than 200 lots over the last 15 years), the artist Howard ARKLEY holds ninth and tenth place in this week’s Top ranking.
Although his highest auction price was just $6,300 before his death in 1999 (several months after representing Australia at the Venice Biennial), the price index of the artist – who took a psychedelic and colourful approach to suburban architecture – rose sharply after 1999 with more than 67 results above $10,000. Of these, one third was hammered in 2007, year in which his Family Home fetched $277,863. His work is still very popular at auctions with at least one work fetching more than $100,000 in both 2010 and 2011.

From urban landscapes to explorations of the desert, Australian Contemporary art is as broad and varied as the territory itself. The artist Bronwyn OLIVER focused on this latter dimension. Her sculpture Tracery which generated her best-ever auction result and which occupies ninth place in this ranking, is one many works that evoke this notion of unlimited space via a series of mineral and permeable sculpted forms. At $273,540, her record confirms the strong demand for her work, especially as it is very rare (only 23 lots ever offered). However, since his death in 2006, the flow has somewhat augmented: 15 works offered and only 3 bought in.

Aboriginal Art
Aboriginal art occupies a special place in Australia and 3 of the 6 artists in this Top are aborigines.
One of the three aboriginal artists in this ranking, Dorothy NAPANGARDI, has enjoyed strong demand since 2004 when her first work was presented at auction. In fact, that first work (Karntakurlangu) fetched $78,089 (AUD 110,000), three times its estimate. The piece Mina Mina that fetched $342,028 is part of a series for which the artist was awarded the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2001. Her work, mixing movement and texture, successfully associates aboriginal spiritual questions with the savoir-faire of an ancestral tradition.
Sharing the same aboriginal origins, the artist Lin ONUS spent his life depicting aboriginal landscapes and symbols with greater precision than Napangardi. Beginning his career as an illustrator for tourists, Lin used the Chromos codes and re-contextualised it in the aboriginal tradition. His Water Lillies and Evening Reflections, Dingo Springs which fetched $290,822 in 2006 was the peak of a lofty ascent of his price index in 2006 and 2007 (he died in October 1996). From 1999 to 2007, only 18% of his works offered for sale in auctions failed to sell. His prices are still buoyant with at least half of the works sold since 2010 fetching more than $50,000.
The work of Gordon BENNETT is much more political. A militant artist, Bennet draws inspiration from aboriginal history and the history of Australia. His works question identity with very concrete representations that owe as much to Basquiat and Pollock as to 19th century engravings. Possession Island is a good example of this, based on a Samuel Calvert engraving representing Samuel Cook taking possession of Australia. In 2007 the work fetched $282,304 sending the artist’s price index onto another plane; until then his best auction result had been approximately $22 000. Since then two of his works have sold for between $35,000 and $45,000, but since 2010 only 2 out of 9 works presented at auction sales have found buyers, no doubt carrying excessively high estimates (in effect, only one of the seven unsold works since 2010 was estimated below AUD 28,000 ($25,000).

Contemporary Australian art is today enjoying growing local demand (Australia is ranked 11th globally for sales of Contemporary art) and it is also benefiting from the eastward migration of the core of the global art market. Only a few hours from Asia, Australia is less and less insulated and this is good news for Australian art which so far only has one artist in this ranking (Ron Mueck) whose personal best result was generated outside Australia.