Excuse the pun, but the ruddy cheek of Sotheby’s. It has put a
gobsmacking estimate of between $150,000 and $200,000 on Craig Ruddy’s
controversial Archibald-winning portrait of actor David Gulpilil.

In a shamelessly opportunistic piece of timing, Sotheby’s and the
artist summoned the media at noon today to announce the work will be
auctioned on 28 August. The announcement came only a week after the NSW Supreme dismissed a
legal challenge by Sydney artist Tony Johansen, who argued that Ruddy
should not have been awarded the 2004 Archibald Prize because his entry
was a drawing and not a painting. Johansen’s contention that it was a
drawing was based on Ruddy’s admission that a substantial portion of
the picture was executed in charcoal.

It is astounding, even absurd, that Sotheby’s has placed such a high
estimate on the work. Craig Ruddy was virtually unheard of until he won
the prize and his name has only stayed in the news because of the
controversy surrounding the portrait. If the picture attracts bidding
anywhere near $150,000, it would put Ruddy in a league occupied by only
a handful of very well-known Australian artists – Olsen, Storrier,
Piccinini, Moffatt and the like. Ruddy simply isn’t in that league.

Sotheby’s points out that Ruddy’s portrait of Gulpilil was only the
second in the Archibald’s 75-year history to take out the major prize
and the people’s choice award. So what? Prices in the hard-nosed and
unashamedly elitist art market are not set in accordance with public
popularity.

The auction house has pulled out all stops to talk up the picture,
claiming it stands in the “public consciousness alongside works like
Dobell’s portraits of Margaret Olley and Joshua Smith, Brett Whiteley’s
1976 self portrait and Clifton Pugh’s 1972 portrait of Gough Whitlam”.
That’s a ridiculously big call.

The most famous and controversial painting to win the Archibald,
William Dobell’s 1943 portrait of Joshua Smith, sold for $222,500 at a
Sotheby’s auction in 1998. Sotheby’s says the price it got for the
Dobell informed its estimate for the Ruddy. Given the yawning gulf that
separates Dobell and Ruddy in terms of talent and reputation, Sotheby’s
is being exceedingly optimistic.

By winning the right to auction Ruddy’s picture, Sotheby’s has pulled
off a huge publicity coup, with the portrait serving as a novel
drawcard for the August auction. But that’s all it is.

Peter Fray

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