The Australian art Top 10

[18 Aug 2017]

Discover the best sales every Friday! Every other Friday, Artprice posts a theme-based auction ranking. This week, Artprice analyses the best auction results of the year recorded down under.

This week’s ranking highlights the most famous Australian artists, whose reputation has spread far beyond its borders, but whose market remains deeply entrenched in Australia. Over several decades and many talented artists, a main theme emerges in the most popular works: the landscape, whether romantic, dreamlike or surrealist with works by Eugene Von Guerard, Russell Drysdale, Brett Whiteley and Sidney Robert Nolan.

Rank Artist Hammer Price ($) Artwork Sale
1 Russell DRYSDALE (1912-1981) 2 254 022 Grandma’s Sunday Walk 06/25/2017 Mossgreen Auctions, Armadale,
2 Sidney Robert NOLAN (1917-1992) 1 945 583 Ned Kelly – Outlaw 03/15/2017 Deutscher and Hackett, Sydney
3 Eugene VON GUÉRARD (1811-1901) 1 466 928 Breakneck Gorge, Hepburn Springs 05/03/2017 Sotheby’s, Woollahra, Sydney
4 Fernand LÉGER (1881-1955) 1 397 204 China Town 02/09/2017 Menzies Art Brands, South Yarra
5 Eugene VON GUÉRARD (1811-1901) 733 464 View of the Granite Rocks at Cape Woolamai 05/03/2017 Sotheby’s, Woollahra, Sydney
6 Brett WHITELEY (1939-1992) 653 248 Westerly with Daisies (View of Lavender Bay) 02/09/2017 Menzies Art Brands, South Yarra
7 Brett WHITELEY (1939-1992) 648 528 Galah 03/15/2017 Deutscher and Hackett, Sydney
8 Brett WHITELEY (1939-1992) 538 842 Hummingbird and Frangipani 06/06/2017 Bonhams, Woollahra, Sydney
9 Albert Lee TUCKER (1914-1999) 463 234 Intruder And Parrots 03/15/2017 Deutscher and Hackett, Sydney
10 Russell DRYSDALE (1912-1981) 458 415 Head of a Boy 05/03/2017 Sotheby’s, Woollahra, Sydney
copyright © 2017

A landscape artist whose romantic vision was inspired by the old German tradition, Eugene Von Guerard (1811-1901) is the oldest artist in this Top 10. Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1811, Von Guerard was active in Australia between 1852-1882, after spending several years in Italy studying the old masters (1826-1838) and some time in Dusseldorf where he notably met Caspar David Friedrich, one of the greatest romantic German artists. Influenced by various subjects, the Australian landscapes of Von Guerard are not far, in their treatment, from European Alpine landscapes. Quickly championed by critics, the artist occupied an important place in the emerging artistic community of Melbourne. He was even appointed first Master of painting at the National School of Fine Arts and curator at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Although his work is recognized in Europe and the United States, it is in Australia that his market (97% of sales revenue) is centred. A new million-dollar auction which took place in May 2017 confirms his high value: with a price of more than $1.4 million, Breakneck Gorge, Hepburn Springs almost doubled its low estimate, during a sale devoted to Australian art organised by Sotheby’s in Sydney.

Recently, Von Guerard’s value has been matched by the more contemporary landscapes of Russell Drysdale (1912-1981), whose name appears twice in this ranking. Russell Drysdale’s main preoccupation was with the relationship between the Australian landscape and its inhabitants, through paintings with characteristic ochre tones. Acclaimed from his first solo show (at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1942), he created a stir by renewing the vision of the interior of the country, re-creating a world of loneliness, isolation and even a certain theatricality. In 1954, the artist was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. Even today, he is still one of the major figures in 20th century Australian art, with a steady value and a new record of more than $2.2 million set last June at Mossgreen Auctions in Armadale (Australia). His market is totally Australian and the few attempts to sell abroad in recent years (usually in London) have unfortunately failed. His market remains local and his work is highly sought after by Australian collectors.

Another important figure, Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) is considered a true Avant-garde artist. This free-spirited artist travelled extensively (France, Italy, England) before settling in London, during a period when Australian artists were rather popular in England. His career took off in the 1960s, after the Tate Gallery acquired Untitled Red painting: never had the Tate Gallery had so much riding on such a young artist. Nowadays, the British market is no longer interested in his works and 97% are sold in Australia. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most highly regarded Australian artists of our time and holds no less than three places in our Top 10.

Ranked second, Sidney Robert Nolan (1917-1992) also chose to emigrate to London after having painted his first desert and desolate landscapes while in the Australian army in the 1940s. These native Australian landscapes remain characteristic of his work, even when he left for England in 1955. Borrowing from Surrealism, his unique work has appealed to many dealers and museums throughout the world. Nolan even exhibited during his lifetime in London at Marlborough Fine Art (Sidney Nolan Recent Work, May 1965) and at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Dix ans d’art vivant 1955-1965). His career in London was acknowledged with major awards: honoured with the British Order of Merit in 1983, he became a member of the Royal Academy in 1991, a few months before his death. The value of his work reflects his importance in the history of Australian art: Nolan broke the auction record in Australia for a national artist in 2010 (with $4.1m paid for First-Class Marksman, 1946, sold at Menzies Art Brands in Kensington). The United Kingdom has not forgotten this artist and his work is still very sought after in London. Since the beginning of the year, six works have been sold, with prices ranging from $150 for a lithograph published by the Marlborough Gallery in 1973, to nearly $32,000 for an oil on paper, sold on June 13th at Sotheby’s (Kelly in Landscape).