The autumn art auctions have only just started but already nearly $10 million worth of paintings, prints and drawings have been sold at sales in Sydney this year with another eight sales scheduled over the next two months in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

As John Furphy’s Australian Art Sales Digest records, total art market turnover last year hit a new record of $104.85 million – up from $93.15 million in 2005. That represents a jump of 12.5%, a big rise and contrasts with the 3-4% annual increase over the previous three years which may suggest the market is booming.

But with eight salerooms now competing for pictures and three newcomers trying to find buyers at sales in Melbourne this year, dealers say a shakeout is certain. After all, if international heavyweight Christie’s found making a profit in the antipodes too hard and pulled out of Australia, observers say there is no way the small Australian market can support so many auctioneers.

The general view is that Melbourne cleaning magnate Rod Menzies will be forced to rationalise his operations by combining his eponymous Lawson-Menzies auctionhouse in Sydney with his Melbourne-based Deutscher-Menzies. That became more likely after Chris Deutscher, who co-founded the latter company, jumped ship in December to form Deutscher and Hackett with Damian Hackett who was DM’s national director.

The pair may manage to survive with financial backing from Melbourne businessman Ian Hicks. But Hicks is also deputy chair of the National Gallery of Victoria’s fundraising arm, the NGV Foundation, and this has raised questions about conflicts of interest. Meantime, the soon-to-retire Queensland Art Gallery director, Doug Hall, has become a member of the Deutscher and Hackett board.

On the other hand, Joel Fine Art – a spinoff from the longstanding Melbourne saleroom Leonard Joel – is unlikely to last the distance. In a less than auspicious start, Joel’s held its first auction late last year and the firm is having a second shot next week.

Sydney-based Bonhams & Goodman will hold its first art auction in Melbourne in April where it will find the going a lot tougher than in its home state where Tim Goodman has been selling secondhand goods for years. Goodman claimed a coup when he hired former National Gallery of Victoria curator Geoffrey Smith who resigned after being caught up in his own conflict of interest accusations involving his former live-in partner and Melbourne dealer Rob Gould.

The Australian gave B&G a page one plug on Saturday in a story that claimed Smith was responsible for obtaining a little known painting by Albert Tucker from a long-time friend, Tucker’s widow Barbara. Smith’s current partner is Melbourne deputy Lord Mayor Gary Singer, a lawyer who acts for Mrs Tucker. In the art world, it’s very much a matter of who you know.

Peter Fray

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