Art sales picking up

ALISA YONG AND HAMISH MCNICOL
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014

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Paintings from New Zealand's largest corporate art collection are to go under the hammer as domestic art sales begin to piggyback on the broad strokes of growing consumer confidence.

But although galleries agree the visual and fine art market is picking up because of the "investment potential", people are becoming more discerning about who, and what, they buy.

And a new wave of affordable and emerging art is also coming into prominence in New Zealand.

At least 77 works from the Fletcher Trust collection, advertised as the country's largest corporate collection, are to be sold by Auckland auction house International Art Centre in September.

Art by some of the biggest domestic names are being sold including Raymond McIntyre, Gordon Walters, Gretchen Albrecht, Toss Woollaston, Milan Mrkusich, Pat Hanly and Ralph Hotere. Works by these artists can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

International Art Centre director Richard Thomson could not confirm which paintings will be auctioned or the reason for the sale.

A brochure from the International Art Centre advertised three specific pieces as part of the Fletcher Trust Collection.

These included works by Mrkusich, Hanly and McIntyre.

"I can confirm it is at this stage at least 76 works from the Fletcher Trust Collection spanning some 150 years of New Zealand painting," Thomson said.

"The works are good examples, in some case important examples, by the artists and often with exceptional provenance and illustrated in books."

Trust executive chairman Angus Fletcher would not comment on why the paintings were up for auction.

A catalogue for the auction would detail the reasons for the trust's sale, he said.

Thomson said there was "immense interest" in the visual and fine art market, and it was growing.

The value of work by the country's "blue-chip" artists, such as Charles Goldie, Colin McCahon and Rita Angus, might fluctuate a little, but as a rule were like good property, he said.

"There are only so many of them in private hands, good examples are increasingly less [available] on the market and there is more interest in those artists than any other time in history.

"They would be unlikely to lose their value long term."

According to the Australian Art Sales Digest, which compiles New Zealand auction statistics, Hanly and Hotere are among New Zealand's most traded artists at auction.

This year Hotere's Vidyapati's Song sold for $253,000 at auction. In 2013, Walters' Tautahi koru painting went for $439,000 and Hanly's Golden Age for $225,400.

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Dunbar Sloane's director of fine and applied arts Helena Walker said provenance was increasingly important to buyers.

She said the best examples of any artist's works always sold at a premium, regardless of the period it was from.

But the public was also more discerning, she said, with "average works" from artists, whether contemporary or historical, being a harder sell than they were five or six years ago.

"The artist that's not selling particularly well at the moment is Ralph Hotere.

"Since he passed away a lot more of his work has come onto the market. We're finding that prices aren't holding up as they were."

The market assumed an artist's death would increase the value of their work, but it wasn't always the case, she said.

Works by sought-after artists such as McCahon and Angus always sold well, though there was an emerging market for works priced under $20,000 as well, because buyers had less cash at the moment.

Walker said standalone collections, such as the Fletcher Trust collection, were very popular at auction.

"We had the Sir Ivor [Richardson] collection and that did incredibly well.

"There's always an extra cachet with a standalone collection as well."

In 2012 about 200 paintings from the Les and Milly Paris private collection sold for a total of $4.65 million, the highest sale total in New Zealand.

Les Paris was a former Wellington lawyer who with his wife amassed one of the country's most legendary private collections, starting when they married in 1963 and collected over decades.

Page Blackie gallery co-director Marcia Page said pieces of art from the colonial era were increasing in value because they were incredibly rare.

But they were also unique and of historical importance, she said.

Other works, however, were not selling so well.

"There are countless versions of South Island lakes and mountains, so those are the works that are not so sought after at the moment." She said some galleries had closed after a slower period during the past few years, but the market was slowly shifting into a more positive space.

"We have seen the vagaries of the art market; sometimes it's slower than others. "It does piggyback on the general confidence of consumers."

The Peter McLeavey Gallery's Olivia McLeavey said there were some collectors in the market now who focused on buying younger and emerging artists, such as Andrew Barber and Nick Austin.

The big names and "blue chips" always had strong demand, she said, especially Bill Hammond and Peter Robinson.

Another high-growth market for art collectors was photography, because it was high quality and more affordable.

"You can get a really high quality, institutional-quality piece, but because it's a photograph. . . it's definitely more affordable.

"Particularly for emerging collectors or people that are looking to begin their journey, that's quite a good road to take."

The Fletcher Trust collection's origins began with Fletcher Holdings in 1962, when Sir James Fletcher bought five watercolours by the 19th-century painter J B C Hoyte for £300 ($12,465 in today's dollars) - a price it said had "gone down in legend".

When Fletcher Holdings and Challenge Corporation merged in 1981, the Fletcher collection was joined by the Challenge collection - although the two were not formally combined until 1991.

The trust said the collection came under the "umbrella" of the trust after the merger and shift to Auckland. It was mostly housed at Fletcher Building's offices in Auckland, and had continued to grow after a period of the dismantling of many of the country's corporate art collections during the 1990s, the trust said.

Fletcher said the collection had now been independent from the company since 2001.

"Its origins are from within Fletcher Holdings and Fletcher Challenge, and a major part of it is still housed within Fletcher Building's Penrose offices but the trust is an independent charitable trust."

NO INTENTION TO SELL PIECES

Another of the country's larger corporate collections, owned by the Telecom Art Trust, has no intention to sell any of its 300 pieces.

The collection has a strong focus on New Zealand artists and is distributed in buildings around the country.

Former Telecom chief executive Rod Deane is credited with driving the collection, which first started in the 1990s.

Most of the art was paintings, but there was also sculpture and pottery, with the pieces ranging in value from tens of thousands of dollars to a lot less.

The Telecom Art Trust was formed in early 2011 to protect the collection, which was bought in the mid-1990s. Telecom had been cutting costs at the time but did not want to sell the collection, as market conditions were not quite right. It remains in "conservation mode".

One of the trust's trustees, Jenny Steele, said it was important to keep New Zealand art from a heritage perspective.

The art had previously been held quite tightly but was now widely available through the company's buildings.

"The focus of the trust is to protect what we have and to think about how it should be used," Steele said. "How do we show it off to our own people and the wider public and potentially other institutions."

Art in the collection includes work by Ralph Hotere, Rita Angus and Brent Wong.

"I'm an amateur art fancier," she said. "I love that at work you can wander past some interesting art and get to see it every day outside the confines of a museum or gallery. It's here and all around us."

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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