Halfway Between Home and High Street

As we approach our move to new flagship premises in Hawthorn, I thought I would look back on Leonard Joel’s movements in Melbourne over the last century, noting some interesting evolutions along the way.

Leonard Joel’s McKillop Street premises, 1983

While I certainly don’t recall our first salerooms at 362 Little Collins Street, (premises that Leonard Joel himself referred to as an “Art Salon”), I do recall a moment in the 1970s when my father took me from Kozminsky down the steep McKillop Street laneway in Melbourne to the second home of Leonard Joel at number 17. It was a period building, impossibly busy and with stock everywhere, in every sense the quintessential auction house. It was a time when everything happened in Melbourne’s CBD, when men, mostly from the antiques trade, dominated a saleroom. No telephone bidders, no internet, no international bidding. The market was made in a bricks and mortar environment, there and then, the only connection occasionally with the outside world would be a runner or a member of the antiques trade acting on behalf of an absent client. 

As business grew and a secondary market for art took shape in Australia, Graham Joel required more space. What emerged next were two sites. One was on High Street, Armadale, at number 1195 to be precise. This site was devoted to Fine Art and several times a year the Malvern Town Hall would be seconded, with the largest seasonal viewings and auctions of art conducted there. It was where Leonard Joel sold the first $1M painting (Rupert Bunny’s Une Nuit de Canicule) and where the irrepressible, highly successful art and antiques dealer, Danuta Rogowski would sit in the front row, bidding and commenting in real time, with a bravado all her own. 

Leonard Joel Paintings Auction with Rupert Bunny’s artwork on the cover, November 1988

The site to complement this one was situated at 174 Inkerman Street in St Kilda, and I will always remember Graham Joel explaining his strategy there. In his trademark no nonsense fashion, and with a touch of humour, he described how it was about halfway between his home and High Street. If it worked for him, it worked for his business! This was the place where the Qintex collection was dispersed, and where the most fascinating “missed bid” dispute – possibly in Australian auction history – took place during a book auction. The auction was held in conjunction with Gaston Renard and two dealers were bidding exactly behind each other at the same time and both thought they had the bid, it was at $220,000! It was also where a young storeman – me – first met musician Vince Jones, who for a time enjoyed collecting with us. 

In the 1990s, Warren Joel, 3rd generation auctioneer, made the bold move to consolidate the business to 333 Malvern Road, South Yarra. It is a beautiful and imposing Gothic revival building that had been the old Hawksburn primary school, and while of no use to the developer of the area at the time, it clearly caught the eye of Warren. Here, so much auction history was made. The Magical Studio of Mirka Mora, the National Australia Bank Collection, and the Ron Barassi Collection were just some of the historic collections that were celebrated here. 

Auction of Rupert Bunny’s (1864–1947) Une Nuit de Canicule in 1988, at the Malvern Town Hall. Can you spot John Albrecht?

Fast forward to 2023 and we find ourselves to have outgrown here, and the culmination of a two-year search will see us relocated to unashamedly contemporary gallery and saleroom spaces in the heart of Hawthorn, just off Glenferrie Road, in the Hawthorn arts and community precinct. Beautiful tree-lined parking surrounds us, and when our clients might need some fresh air or a break from a frenzied auction, they can stroll to the Hawthorn Arts Centre on one side, the library on the other, or perhaps just observe a moment or two in a game at the Hawthorn Tennis Club or the charming MCC Bowls Club. 

From Leonard Joel’s dense and cramped beginnings in Melbourne’s CBD, full of people and no technology, we now find our business in a leafy suburb, full of space, and brimming with everything the modern auction goer could need. So much has changed, but so much remains the same.

By John Albrecht, Chairman & Head of Important Collections

Banner Image: Auction of Rupert Bunny’s (1864–1947) Une Nuit de Canicule in 1988, at the Malvern Town Hall.

November 2023

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