Private Collections

Extraordinary Private Collections pass through the salerooms of our Melbourne and Sydney offices or national affiliates every year and as head of this department my privilege is that I learn something or numerous things from every auction.

Collections can be diverse in content, challenging operationally or unique in their demands.  I describe this as an “In and Out” journey and I love it; in simple terms I always come out of an auction knowing a little more and wiser for the experience. Here, I distil ten of those moments as we reflect on one hundred years of auction history.

When I came back to Leonard Joel a decade ago the photographic estate of this great Australian photographer lay dormant in boxes; complex in its volume, delicate in its medium and with little to no auction history to support such an auction. What to do with one of Australia’s greatest photographers at auction and how to generate sale results that would ultimately respect this? No guarantees I soon realised at public auction but equally, it could not remain in boxes for ever. With these conflicting requirements we set about carefully valuing the collection but with little market history that process had to reflect that reality. No greater sin for an auctioneer than to over-value and then generate an auction result known for its low sale rate. Prior to auction we were presented with what I would describe as a cheeky offer and at that moment I had to decide, better to sell privately or trust the market place? We decided the latter and the result was a packed room of photography aficionados, record prices and a good example of how auctions can assist the markets for artists.

No one had ever brought an urban art collection to public auction in Australia before and I suspect no urban artist would believe an auction house would be interested. Andy Mac, one of the great creative forces behind Melbourne’s street art scene, was brave enough to make that leap and tentatively contacted us about his extraordinary collection. The result was the first auction of its type in the country and a record price for (with hindsight now) an extraordinarily important collaborative mural. He challenged my notions about the more controversial aspects of the genre and I left that auction and his gentle manner no longer with the view that graffiti was largely a belligerent, anti-social activity.


When Graham Geddes decided to bring the largest stock-in-trade decorative arts auction in Australian history to market he had every auctioneer in the country falling over him (but not because of the work that they knew would be involved!) and we were thrilled to have been selected. His sprawling Aladdin’s Cave of a collection, a trade collection like no other, challenged all our notions about how to catalogue, photograph, present and ultimately sell such volume and value. We now understand better the challenges of photographing treasures too heavy to move, antiquities too rare to rush the cataloguing of and, practically speaking, the sheer number of specialists required to manage such an event effectively.


Very few people have had the privilege of entering the upstairs levels of what is affectionately known as “the old Dan Murphys building” in Chapel Street, Prahran but that changed when artist David Bromley decided to sell the entire contents of this grand Victorian building that had become his home, his studio and his world. The viewing period was attended by hundreds of Melburnians eager to get a glimpse of an artist’s private world and just as eager to wander the interior that lay behind Chapel Street’s grandest, and most haunting facade. Typically viewing numbers are larger than auction attendance but on this day that rule was broken. Thirty minutes in to the auction we literally couldn’t fit anyone in to the building, the stairwells were choking and crowds were gathering on Chapel Street Crowd safety was paramount but the show had to go on so I made the difficult but necessary decision to lock the doors and send eager bidders home to bid live online from their homes. Those affected were disappointed but understood and the auction was an extraordinary success.


When The Public Trustee of Queensland contacted me about this “gentleman’s” collection I knew little of the controversy surrounding him, nor was I versed in just how voracious the appetite had become for luxury, whether old or new. I’ll never forget being asked by a group of men in a room, lit a little like I felt I was being interrogated, what the most expensive television in the world, purchased for $95,000 and still brand new, would sell for? I remember shrugging my shoulders and guessing to them quizzically “$25,000”? I had no response and felt I’d perhaps let the room down.
We were ultimately engaged for what has come to be known as the largest auction of luxury in the country and on that day I learnt that collectors, decorators and private clients were very much ready for new collecting categories at auction.


When I first met the sporting legend I greeted him as “Mr Barassi” and as I suspected he would, more rapidly than immediately, he requested with his trademark humility “please, Ron”. The journey then began that saw us cataloguing the most important archive of Australian football memorabilia ever assembled and making friendships along the way. The catalogue was complete, the viewing was set and the media frenzy was as perfect as an auctioneer could wish for and during all of this time we heard whispers that there might be an offer before auction on the entire collection! I completely doubted that because, in Australia anyway, the sale of an entire collection as vast and complex as this was unprecedented. But sure enough, and just before the viewing was to proceed, Paul Little, with a promise to keep the collection intact and ultimately establish a museum purchased the entire collection. I’ll never forget the final moments before the collection transacted, leaving the room for Ron and his advisers to decide and several minutes later that was it, it was sold and never again will I be so sure that great public gestures like this can’t find their way to auction land.


James Fairfax was in every sense the traveller and his collection reflected that; its sheer diversity reflected his extraordinary eye and focus on quality. To make the collection even more challenging was a significant Asian Art component, one that could not be simply catalogued or valued given its range and the chaotic prices realised in this category over the last decade. Up against international competition during the pitch stage and naturally, with the requirement that we priced the pieces internationally, the collection was earmarked for dispersal across the globe, with multiple sale dates and a huge transport bill! Our challenge here was to bring a simpler international environment to our proposal. One grand auction in Sydney, live-bidding offered to every corner of the globe for those that could not attend and cross-referenced pricing of the Asian art component by no less than three specialists secured the collection and delivered an extraordinary result. And at that auction we learnt that distance from international collecting markets, with the right platform and expertise, was genuinely no longer an impediment to international collections being sold on our shores.


Never before had an original Ashes trophy come to public auction and with only perhaps three in the world and one missing there was no reference point as to how to price for auction such a treasure. This is where we auctioneers begin to assemble in our minds the sale of objects that while not similar at least help us inform an estimate that we can take to the general public with some credibility. In auction land we call this the educated guesstimate and in this case the process was so much more interesting given the import of the object in question. We drew on the sale of recent Ashes trophies, the sale of other sacred sporting objects such as Brownlow medals and quite literally just our good old-fashioned “gut feel” as auctioneers. We finally settled on an estimate of $50,000 – $70,000. It sold for $65,000 plus buyer’s premium and now? Well, now we know what that missing Ashes Urn, if it were ever found, might be worth.


I can’t think of another time when an auctioneer was asked to not just manage the sale of an artist’s estate but also the intimacy of the complete living environment and studio that quite literally represented that artist’s world. Such was the case when we were appointed to perform the sacred task of sympathetically and patiently recreating Mirka Mora’s studio, her life really, for public celebration and auction. But who to oversee such a task? Not a traditional art specialist and certainly not a generalist valuer either. This situation did not fundamentally require one specialist, it required an individual sensitive to the intimacy and privacy associated with the task and we were lucky enough to have such a skill-set in our Head of Modern Design, Anna Grassham. A curious selection from the outside looking in I suspect. But Anna oversaw the entire project with perfection, from beginning to end, and in the process I learnt that specialists should not necessarily be defined by their specialty.


I know very little about guitars, stringed instruments and the value of them but that did not stop us managing probably the largest private collection of musical instruments in Australia. Partnering with experts in this field we set upon a journey with collectors and experts from around the world that as we drew closer to the auction became more excited and asked more questions about the instruments; questions that challenged our traditional notions about what a condition report should contain. Having worked through the intricacies and nuances of instrument collecting we came to our viewing days. The collection was expertly displayed with numerous guitars attached museum-like to our walls. It looked splendid and we were very proud of its presentation. But not long into the viewing we encountered one slight problem; most of the visitors wanted to play the instruments as part of their condition research. We relented, allowed the regular dismantling of our beautiful display, enjoyed a viewing full of spontaneous music and learnt that viewings can come to life in wonderful ways.

Managing Director & Head of Private Collections