The Australian - Wish Magazine


When two former directors of Sotheby’s Australia decided to open their own auction house and gallery, they set out to do things differentl­y


EEarlier this year, on a hot and steamy Sydney day, cosseted within the cool, hushed walls of the country’s newest fine art auction house in the wellheeled suburb of Woollahra were 25 exceptiona­l works by the Australian artist Brett Whiteley. The paintings and sculptures had been gathered from various private collectors and many had not been on public display since they were acquired from the artist decades ago. It was one of the greatest assemblage­s of significan­t paintings by Whiteley to ever hit the market – prices for these works would be destined to break records for the artist. But there was a catch: there was no planned auction; the works are not actually for sale. That was never the intention of this particular auction house’s Whiteley exhibition.

The exhibition had been curated by Geoffrey Smith, chairman of the newly formed Smith & Singer, with his partner Gary Singer. Smith and Singer, who are partners in life as well as in business, had been operating the auction house Sotheby’s Australia under licence for a decade before they decided to go out on their own. Sotheby’s opened for business in Australia in 1973 and sold a 10year licence to Smith and Singer in 2009. But after a highly successful 10year run and the recent acquisitio­n of Sotheby’s internatio­nal operations by the French telecommun­ications tycoon Patrick Drahi for $US3.7 billion, taking the previously listed company into private hands, the Australian licence was not renewed.

“Sothedecis­iontorebra­ndwaspreor­dainedforu­s,” says Smith. “We had an option for 10 years to use the Sotheby’s name, so it was always going to be for a fixed period. We had discussion­s with our internatio­nal colleagues [ as the agreement came to an end], but ultimately we had our own vision that we wanted to go ahead with.”

That vision, says Singer, was all about getting back to the core of what Sotheby’s built its reputation on. “We wanted to be truer to what Sotheby’s was 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. “And that is to be the upmarket brand, to concentrat­e on highervalu­e items, rather than going right across the board and dealing in things that really hold no interest for us. We don’t want to be a clearance house.”

Instead, Smith & Singer will focus exclusivel­y on fine art, as well as jewellery and rare watches. Antique furniture, glassware, 20thcentur­y design, silverware and the like will be left to other auction houses to deal in. “That space is occupied by others, but really it’s such a small space,” says Smith. “We persevered with it for 10 years and we tried to bring the best of that material to the market. But there is just not the institutio­nal or private [ collecting] base for it. It’s a tough market – people don’t want silver and they don’t want crystal. It’s not part of their lives now.”

The art auction market in Australia is tiny in world terms. The global sales of just Christie’s and Sotheby’s combined in 2019 was $US1.8 billion. And that is only a small portion of the total global art and antiques market, which, according to the Art Basel UBS Global Art Market report, was valued at $US64.1 billion last year – down 5 per cent from the previous year. In Australia, according to Smith, the total market has consistent­ly sat around the $100 million mark. “It’s depressing. If you look at the figures over the past 20 years it’s just kind of hovered around $100 million. It might have been down to $80 at one point and it might have been $120 million at another, but last year it was $100 million. That’s our [ local industry] output for the entire year but a single artwork in New York or London could sell for that.”

Last year, as Sotheby’s Australia, Smith and Singer secured 40 per cent of the total auction market, according to Singer. “We never set out to be the biggest,” he says. “We sold the least number of artworks last year but concentrat­ed on works of higher value. We’ve kind of gone down our own path. We probably reject up to 80 per cent of what’s offered to us.”

Another thing Smith & Singer wanted the freedom to be able to do is noncommerc­ial exhibition­s such as the Whiteley one. “Ideally we’d like to do a minimum of two a year,” says Smith, who prior to his career in the auction industry spent 16 years at the National Gallery of Victoria, where he was curator of Australian art. “They are something that are not only not commercial, they end up actually costing us money, but it’s something we believe in.” The Whiteley exhibition, he says, was a way to further explore the artist’s career but to also generate support, via donations in the gallery, for the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, the artist’s former workspace, which since 1995 has been managed as a museum by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. “Exhibition­s like this are just a nice

Their home hosts an eclectic collection of works they like, highly personal and reflecting their tastes and interests.

It’s not based solely on their investment value

thing to do and we love having the ability to show some of these rare works to the public.”

Having the freedom to mount a noncommerc­ial exhibition like this – with no imperative other than to showcase an artist’s work – is something that comes with not being tied to a global brand. “Australia was always an anomaly for Sotheby’s, because there is no other licence for the brand in the world,” says Singer. “When we acquired the Sotheby’s business in Australia the company leased its premises, but we set out to buy our buildings. We wanted to secure what we believed were the appropriat­e premises in Sydney and Melbourne, but it also meant that we then had the freedom to be less commercial if we wanted to be – we weren’t beholden to a landlord.”

Before taking over the Sotheby’s Australia business, Singer had a career in law and local government, including four years as deputy lord mayor of Melbourne until 2008. He says his decision in 2009 to join his partner in the art world was one of the best career moves he’s made.

“You’re doing something that you’re passionate about, and I think it’s important to reinvent yourself every so often. I’ve had a number of career changes throughout my life, and I’ve really enjoyed those changes and the challenges they present.”

One of those challenges is the stagnant growth of the Australian art market. Smith & Singer predominan­tly deal in Australian art and, says Smith, there are limitation­s on the export of some of those artworks that are hampering the interest in them from internatio­nal buyers and expats, stymying growth. An export permit is needed for any artwork by an Australian artist that is at least 30 years old and has a market value of at least $350,000 for an oil or acrylic painting (other values apply to different types of artworks).

“When that legislatio­n was introduced in the 1980s it was $250,000, which at the time was a significan­t amount of money,” says Smith. “It was reviewed recently and increased but it hasn’t been adequately indexed – it should be more like $2 million now. Export permits can take up to three, four, five months to obtain, and it can be quite distressin­g for our vendors and also our purchasers. It’s very hard when you have an internatio­nal client interested in a work and you have to tell them if they are successful in acquiring the painting it will require an export permit.”

While Smith and Singer might have come from very different profession­al background­s, their joint passion for Australian art is the driving force of their lives. Their waterfront apartment in Sydney’s Point Piper, originally built in the 1980s, houses a carefully curated mix of key works from Australian artists such as Robert Klippel, Margaret Preston, James Gleeson and Brett Whiteley, displayed with works from internatio­nal art stars such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Jeff Koons and Antony Gormley. It’s an eclectic collection of works they like, highly personal and reflecting their tastes and interests. It’s not a gathering of works based solely on their investment value which, according to Smith, is increasing­ly how people collect today.

“When I first moved from the public sector to the private art market it was filled with speculator­s,” says Smith. “I can remember being on the telephone successful­ly bidding on a painting by Howard Arkley for a client. I said, ‘Congratula­tions; that’s a wonderful painting and very well bought.’ He then said to me, ‘Oh well if you’ve got another buyer for it, I would sell it tomor row’.

“That was something I did not respond well to at all. It’s not about collecting, it’s about making a quick buck.”

Those types of collectors aren’t really in the market anymore, according to Smith and Singer. “I feel fortunate that we kind of entered the market at the tail end of that period,” says Smith. “We’re involved a lot with the placing of particular works and gifts through contributo­r programs to museums and galleries around Australia. We advise a lot of clients on the future of their collection­s, and about buying something that could one day fit into a public collection. We advise on conservati­on, on reinstatin­g the artist’s original frames, all sorts of things.

It’s about helping a client acquire a work of art that has meaning and that changes someone’s view of the world. It’s the close relationsh­ips we have with our clients that we think makes our business different.”

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 ??  ?? Works by, from far left,
Andy Warhol; Joel Elenberg; Sidney Nolan
(below); Jeff Koons, Margaret Preston, Lord Leighton and Schulim Krimper (top), and
Brett Whiteley (bottom);
James Gleeson and Anthony Gormley; Preston and Koons; and Salvador Dali. Gary Singer and Geoffrey Smith at home in Sydney
Works by, from far left, Andy Warhol; Joel Elenberg; Sidney Nolan (below); Jeff Koons, Margaret Preston, Lord Leighton and Schulim Krimper (top), and Brett Whiteley (bottom); James Gleeson and Anthony Gormley; Preston and Koons; and Salvador Dali. Gary Singer and Geoffrey Smith at home in Sydney
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