In Europe, the UK and the USA, it’s not unusual for an artwork to go straight out of the artist’s studio and into the auction house, or for an artist to be picked up out of art school and have their work enter the market for the first time at auction – usually at a figure into the tens of thousands. This idea, often known as “wet-paint” art, was established by London auction house Philips in the early noughties. Other auction houses, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have followed suit. Simply put, overseas auction houses are often ahead of the galleries in setting prices for contemporary art.
In Australia the auction market for contemporary art is dramatically different. When contemporary works are sold at auction here, it’s often for a fraction of the gallery price. The people selling the art are aware they will likely lose money, and the people buying are often looking for a steal.
The buyers of Australian art are mostly Australians, and we have a small number of collectors compared to the other Western centres. Large prices are reserved for rare historical works – Eugene Von Guerard and Arthur Streeton – or the modernist works of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman.
Perhaps the auction market reflects the culture surrounding our artistic production. Australian art has a reputation for being self-sustaining, perhaps even provincial. Our geographic distance has fed the notion that our art is derivative and unoriginal: how can we possibly have new ideas when our culture is built from our history as a British colony?
But of course our art supports new ideas. Many Australian artists are at the forefront of their fields, making waves both here and abroad. Yet the most successful artists are often those who have left the country to become expats in places with larger markets – think David Noonan, Shaun Gladwell and Ricky Swallow.
For artists who stay in Australia, once their gallery prices reach a certain level, demand for their work often decreases. Without an established secondary market for contemporary art – where gallery prices are supported by healthy auction results – the artists’ markets decline or level out. Among prospective collectors of contemporary Australian art, this does not instil the idea of “investment value”. And at that point, if an artist cannot sustain their practice, they often need to consider a second job to pay the bills.
Alternatively, many of our artists’ international counterparts experience auction results that continue to drive their demand in the primary market – the galleries. The sheer number of collectors and level of wealth in places such as New York and London means that an artist is more likely to enjoy a sustained career from their practice.
So, what next for our artists and the art market? Do we need to wait for the next generations to come up, and for what is currently deemed contemporary, to become historical?
Perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal.
Mossgreen, one of Australia’s leading auction houses, recently staged its first dedicated contemporary art auction. It sells plenty of art, but has never dedicated a sale solely to work by living Australian artists. Reinforcing how noteworthy this is, an auction of contemporary Australian works hasn’t been seen at a major auction house since the early 2000s, when art consultant and secondary market specialist Annette Larkin put on an auction series at Christie’s.
The Mossgreen sale featured rare and important works by artists including Bill Henson, David Noonan, Daniel Crooks, Richard Bell and Robert MacPherson. By dedicating the auction to contemporary art, rather than mixing contemporary works with historical, the argument was that the artists and their works have a greater chance of success. The end result was mixed, but new auction records were set for Bill Henson and Janet Lawrence, and this is just the beginning. It was an important first step in the right direction.
Until a secondary market for contemporary art develops in Australia, our artists – and our art – will continue to be at a disadvantage.
Melissa Loughnan has been involved in the planning and delivery of Mossgreen’s first contemporary auction. The auction will take place in Sydney on Sunday 28 May. Melissa is also the author of Australiana to Zeitgeist: An A to Z of Contemporary Australian Art, recently released by Thames and Hudson.
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