It’s a shaky time in the financial world, in the world world — remember 1987? Somehow that tune keeps replaying in variations on a theme. Still, on we go, working, eating, shopping. Because where would our lovely global capitalism be if we stopped shopping?

But there are ways and there are ways to shop; it doesn’t always have to be on the primary market. That’s the nice thing about vintage clothes, and the useful thing about 2nd hand cars. It’s also a good way to buy art, if you’re in the mood for it and haven’t elegantly organised a personal art budget with expenditure limits and lines of financing.

Over the last month, Mossgreen in South Yarra have been running a series of auctions — an Asian art collection yielded one spectacular result. A 600-y-o gilt-bronze statue of a Boddhisattva, Avalokitesvara, small enough to be clasped in a large hand, was estimated within the wide ambit of $150,000-250,000. On the night, it went for a million bucks, or $1.22m after the premium, ie, the auction house’s cut — I thought they did it for kicks, but no, it’s’ the kickbacks.

Buy good pictures with small names

The night we went they were selling off Fine Australian Art. I had picked out one piece which I liked by a British artist I regard highly. I hadn’t bought any art for oh going on to two years; too long. The bidders were scattered around the room and who knows how many phone bidders. The big names attracted all the interest: Arthur Boyd, Ray Crooke, Brett Whiteley, Yvonne Audette, Charles Blackman, Hans Heysen and especially Margaret Olley. Who knows why? This utterly unremarkable Still life with green chest of drawer went for $38,000. (All three of her lots sold.) This large but very middling quality Whiteley brush drawing of Lovers was passed in for $15,000. It would have been a good buy for $600. Okay, $800. Plus premium.

On the other hand you could have picked up this beautiful little Adrian Feint for $1100, or, if you like her stuff, this strong if unusual pastel by the well respected Louise Hearman for just $410. And a Sally Smart monotype, Where I come from the birds sing a pretty song, looking surpringly like a cheerful Sidney Nolan, for $160. Talk about a song. We’re in a buyer’s market.

The auctioneers, observed critically, lacked a certain warmth. They were entirely efficient and professional and left no bidder unspotted, but where was the charm, the winning appeal? Isn’t half the fun of auctions its theatre? Instead, we got cool notes of “No? No interest? Not tonight?”

Auctioning off Margaret Olley, 28 November 2011

Making the bid

The one we stayed for was Head and Neck with Prop, a large (77 x 58cm) woodcut print by Tony Bevan. As a reader or two will recall, I have been making prints this year — linocuts, an etching, a woodcut — as a fundraising exercise for Australian Book Review‘s 50th anniversary, so my interest in this piece was many sided. Having followed the progress until our number came up — Lot 844 (est. $800-1200), I was pretty sure what would happen. The picture was displayed on a large monitor at the front of the room. Interest was desultory and a price was tried on, Starting at $550, at $550, at $550…

Constant Gardener nudged me, what are you waiting for? I was actually waiting for the last moment, as a kind of self-induced excitement, but I put up my bidder’s card. $600! Thank you, at $600, at $600… Between Lot 843, a small gouache by Ray Crooke, and Lot 845, a nondescript acrylic, about 2 minutes had passed.

With the 22% premium it came to $732. ($745 — gst on the premium!) Allowing that it was quite suitably framed — which would have cost me $160-180, I regard it, technically, as a bargain. At this very point, it’s worth nothing to anyone else, but it’s a fine work, I love it, and have no intention of reselling it.

So, you never know your luck in the big city — you might get something you want without too much pain at a let’s-get-a-bottle-of-bubbly-with-that kind of price. Hopefully — what you like has every chance of being unpopular with other people. And if you’re not too serious about it, then the really regular auctions are the way to go. Not so much your Sothebys or Bonhams or Deutscher Hacketts, but say the weekly art auction at Leonard Joel. The artists don’t get any benefit from secondary sales, alas, but they might end up with some of your love. It’s all karma.