Multi-millionaire Melbourne businessman and art collector Rod Menzies did better than anyone at last night’s $10 million Deutscher-Menzies sale in Sydney.

Menzies made a cool $3 million profit from two paintings of his own painting he had in the auction. The first $1.5 million, including the 20 per cent buyer’s premium, came from the sale for $2.04 million of his Backs and Fronts by John Brack that he had bought for $470,000 three years ago at his own auction house in Sydney.

The next lot was his top picture, The Olgas by Brett Whiteley, which set a new Australian art auction record of $3.48 million. Menzies had only bought the painting recently from Melbourne fashion designer Sally Browne for what dealers believe was about $2 million.

Again, as it was his company that sold the work, he also collects the 20 per cent premium from Melbourne collector Morry Fraid, co-owner of the Spotless chain of haberdashery stores, who bought the Whiteley.

Jon Dwyer, art consultant and former art director of Christie’s, said he was often outbid trying to buy works for his clients. Dwyer said he and many dealers doubted that Deutscher-Menzies would do particularly well, given the fierce competition from all the other auctionhouses, but the sale had turned out to be “phenomenal”.

“There were a lot of new buyers there and the money is just splashing around the market at the moment and I’d say it will keep rolling along for at least another year.”

Whether the current art boom will eventually bust is another question, he says. “There’s no reason to expect any change in the short term with confidence in the retail sector, the way the share market is performing and the low interest rates. It’s only in the last 18 months that the art market has really kicked up – after steady rises since 2001 – and I estimate it has shown a 33 per cent rise since the first sale in 2006.”

Then again, a similar situation occurred during the art boom in the 1980s – until the world stock market crashed in 1987 and the art market followed two years later.

Years before the collapse, former art critic for Time Magazine, Robert Hughes, warned that the art market was built on fashion and that fashions change. Hughes told the story of the French cattle painter Rosa Bonheur, a favourite of Victorian merchant princes, who in 1887 was paid the equivalent of $100,000 for her Highland Raid whereas in 1952 it resold for $600.

“If artists who in their day were considered outstanding, whose work was underwritten by the capital and the social opinions of a powerful empire, could vanish into the oubliette, there is no reason to suppose that the same may not happen to their modern equivalents,” he wrote. “What goes up is quite able to come down. It only needs a little crack in the wall of confidence.”

Whiteley’s painting of the Olgas with its t-ts and bums and erect p-nises will no doubt remain a high-priced painting for quite some time, even though it would probably have been described as pornographic nonsense had a grafittist drawn it on a wall. But in time, like the Bonheur, another generation will regard it, along with some of the other nine works by the artist that collectors put into last night’s auction hoping to capitalise on the market’s current enthusiasm, as not among his best pictures and certainly worth far less than Fraid paid for it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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