Entertainment Arts Brett Whiteley painting breaks Australian art auction record, selling for $6.136 million

Brett Whiteley painting breaks Australian art auction record, selling for $6.136 million

Whiteley painted Henri's Armchair in 1974 at his home studio in Sydney's Lavender Bay. Photo: Menzies
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The stars of the Australian art market have been realigned, following the blockbuster sale on Thursday night of a large Brett Whiteley canvas for $5 million, plus a hefty buyer’s premium.

It took just five minutes, after an opening bid of $4.5 million, for the large painting, called Henri’s Armchair, to find a new owner.

The new owners are a family from Sydney’s lower north shore, who have not yet agreed to have their identity revealed.

They will pay $6.136 million, a total that includes the 25 per cent buyer’s premium charged by the auction house, a new record price for an Australian artwork at auction.

Henri’s Armchair (1974-75) by Brett Whiteley at Menzies auction house in Sydney. Photo: Menzies

The previous record auction price had been held for 10 years by Sidney Nolan’s First-Class Marksman, which was bought by the Art Gallery of NSW via the same Sydney auction house, Menzies, in 2010 for $5.4 million.

Henri’s Armchair is a reference to French painter Henri Matisse, who Whiteley admired.

Henri’s Armchair measures almost two metres high by three metres in length and was offered for sale by Elizabeth Evatt, widow of the defamation barrister and art dealer Clive Evatt, who died in 2018.

Mrs Evatt said before the auction that she hoped a public institution would buy it so it could be enjoyed by many people.

“In parting with it. I’m coming to terms with parting with Clive two years ago. It’s a huge wrench,” Mrs Evatt said.

“To have this amazing painting in our life every day was magnificent.”

Mr Evatt had bought the painting directly from Brett Whiteley in 1975.

The painting has been loaned to many exhibitions across the decades, including a period on display at the Art Gallery of NSW’s Brett Whiteley Studio.

Mrs Evatt said it had never before been offered for sale.

Ahead of the 7pm auction, Mrs Evatt addressed a crowd of around 30 people, in socially distanced seating, who had assembled to witness the sale of just one artwork.

She said her late husband had stopped in to the artist’s Lavender Bay house on the way home from the races one day.

Australian painter and sculptor Brett Whiteley, circa 1965. Photo: Getty

He arrived to find Whiteley fuming because the gallery which had commissioned the painting had asked him to remove the burnt matches and drug paraphernalia on the coffee table in the picture – otherwise they would cancel the commission.

Mr Evatt, who founded and for many years ran his own art space, Hogarth Galleries, offered to buy the work.

He led Whiteley out to his car, popped open the boot and showed a huge stash of cash, which he said were his winnings from the track.

The pair scooped up the money, took it inside and counted it and the sale was sealed.

Mr Evatt enjoyed telling the story, with the kicker that the gallery called back later and said it had changed its mind – but Whiteley was able to say it had missed its chance. It had been sold.

“Can you imagine? They knocked it back!” Mrs Evatt said.

Boom year for art market

Menzies auctioneer Justin Turner said he felt “really great” after the sale.

“This has been an amazing year for the art market. It took us all by surprise. We expected the worst when COVID hit,” Mr Turner said.

“I thought if we could get through the year without laying off staff that would be a success.”

The art market has risen, driven by low interest rates, the inability of art collectors to travel and the home renovation and decoration boom.

This painting is attractive not just on account of its size but also because it is from what is viewed as the artist’s most collectible “Lavender Bay” series.

It was painted a year before Whiteley won the Archibald Prize (the first of two times).

Wendy Whiteley in her secret garden at Lavender Bay, Sydney. Photo: ABC News

The artist’s ex-wife Wendy Whiteley, who controls his estate, said before the auction that she hoped for a good result.

“I’m not involved with it at all and I certainly can’t afford to buy it,” she said.