The 10 most expensive artworks sold in 2015

Totaling just shy of $13.6 million, these ten paintings bolstered the art market in 2015, seven breaking the $1 million mark.
The 10 most expensive artworks sold in 2015

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A year of auctions has wrapped up again for Australia’s leading auction houses and, while our art market hardly sustains the recorded prices touted in the world’s press met in London, New York and Hong Kong, we have our own trophy works that performed well this year.

Reaping a total sum of $13,576.136 there were perennial favourites on the top ten list – Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, John Brack and Fred Williams. This year there were also three international artists – Jacques Lipchitz, Andy Warhol and Ferdinand Leger – part of Menzies strategic push to make their brand more international. One might argue their efforts paid off.


The top ten was essentially battled out between Menzies and Sotheby’s Australia as the two leading houses.

Deutscher and Hackett didn’t make the list despite some strong results this year. Mossgreen Auctions made it to the top 15, demonstrating that their efforts to build their brand have paid off in 2015.

What is most telling is that while we struggled to break the $2.5 million mark – which we have done in the past – there was a consistency across the year. Seven of the top ten paintings sold in 2015 were knocked down at over a million.

This is our report of the top tell sellers in 2015.

All prices include buyers premium.


(c) The Estate of Fred Williams. Licensed by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia

10. Fred Williams: $871,590

Australian Landscape I 1969 (Lot 38) is a grandly abstracted, almost monochrome (brown) expansive landscape by Williams, not what we might immediately think as a painting that would make this list. However, it demonstrates the broad character range of Williams’ oeuvre.

It was sold by Menzies in their 25 June sale for $871,590 (or $650,000 on the hammer), comfortably within its estimate.

It was just pipped Arthur Boyd’s Bride in a Cup, 1959 (Sotheby’s April sale, Lot 73) at $823,500 coming in at number 11; and a swag of paintings that fell into the $700,000 bracket – three artworks sold by Menzies (Frederick McCubbin, Jeffrey Smart and a bronze sculpture by Jean Arp), and a 1984 Brett Whiteley painting sold by Mossgreen Auctions at their August sale of The Peter Elliott Collection of Fine Australian Art, Asian Art, Tribal Art.

© Helen Brack​

9. John Brack: $884,500

A perennial auction favourite, it is not surprising that John Brack made this year’s list.

The top lot of Sotheby’s April sale of The David Clarke AO Collection of Australian Art was sold by phone. It was Brack’s painting First Daughter (1955), Lot 5, which sold for $884,500 sitting above its estimate of $550,000 – 750,000.


8. John Brack: $920,455

It was quickly followed by another Brack, Adagio (1967-69) sold by Menzies at their 10 December sale for $920,455 (estimate $600,000 – 800,000), Lot 41.

This painting is no stranger to the auction room – it has been traded five times since it was painted, moving between private and company collections, each time Menzies having a stake in the sale. It was last auctioned in Melbourne in October 2013.

7. Sidney Nolan: $1,159,000

Sidney Nolan was the first $1 million plus sale achieved by Sotheby’s Australia for 2015, sold by in their August sale (Lot 48) for $1,159,000 (or $950,000 hammer price), returned well above its estimate of $600,000-800,000. It was a phone bidder who trumped the room.

The Emu Hunt (1949), painted in enamel on composition board, was a trophy work for any sale, offered in Australia after sixty years abroad. It had never been exhibited in Australia. Sotheby’s said it was ‘hunted by collectors’, and the energy surrounding the sale of this work was electric, with a flurry of paddles.

Geoffrey Smith, Chairman of Sotheby’s Australia commented: ‘The August sale attracted strong attention from discerning collectors and first time buyers, re-affirming confidence in the market.’ The Nolan did wonders in buoying the overall sale result.

Smith said: ‘The painting exemplifies Nolan’s ability to combine the past with the present and the mythic with the everyday.’ It was painted following Nolan’s iconic Kelly series, and was inspired by Nolan’s wanderings through central and northern Queensland.

6. Fred Williams: $1,206,818

It was however a painting by Fred Williams was the first artist to break the $1 million mark for the 2015 Australian auction market, making the top ten list with Hillside II (1969) offered in Menzies’ 26 March sale in Sydney.

This painting has moved around a lot over the years, offered by Deutscher-Menzies in 2008, Menzies in 2011 and 2013, and again this year. It has managed to slowly creep up in value over those exchanges. It came to auction with an estimate of $900,000 – 1.1 million this time, the hammer knocked down within estimate.

5. Jacques Lipchitz: $1,312,500

A large marble sculpture by Franco-American Jacques Lipchitz captured attention at Menzies's 24 September sale in Melbourne, the bidding dominated by two phone bidders.

The cubist sculpture had come before Menzies in 2013 when it was knocked down for $675,000. The jump in price in the ensuring two years perhaps had something to do with the sale of a Lipchitz editioned bronze in New York last year for $US2.17 M (Sotheby’s).

Auctioneer Rodney Menzies confirmed Homme Assis a la Clarinette II (1971) Lot 42 was sold to an investment buyer, acting on his advice, below its estimate ($1.2-1.6M) but showed a strong investment increase on the Australian market.

© The Estate of Arthur Boyd. Licenced by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia

4. Arthur Boyd: $1,586,000

Sleeping Bride (1957-1958) is one of those iconic works by Boyd from his celebrated series. It is not surprise then it was knocked down at a trophy price of $1,586,000 at Sotheby's Important Australian Art in Sydney (24 November).

With an estimate of $1-1.2 million, Lot 17 had strong provenance, first owned by artist John Perceval, and came to auction from a private collection in Melbourne where it had been held since 1969. Fresh work is one of the edges that an auction house can hope for, and Sotheby’s scored it with this key Boyd.

© The Estate of Fred Williams. Licenced by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia

3. Fred Williams: $1,708,000

In the same sale, the Fred Williams’s painting Trees and Hillsides (1964) – an oil and tempera on composition board – sold for $508,800 above its estimate.

Geoffrey Smith, chairman of Sotheby’s Australia commented on the November sale success: ‘Our annual art auction total for 2015 is in excess of $27.1 million, our highest yearly art auction total since 2007. This result is a testament to our ongoing commitment to sourcing and offering to the market the finest works of historical, modern and contemporary Australian art.’

The Williams painting was estimated at $1-1.2 million (Lot 15). It was one of several paintings offered by the artist in the sale; this one coming from a private collection in Melbourne where it has been held since 1967.

(c) The Estate of Andy Warhol. Licensed by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia

2. Andy Warhol: $1,718,182

Menzies has been placing considerable effort into building its international department. The house’s 25 June sale offered works by Fernand Léger, Lynn Chadwick and Andy Warhol, the latter timed nicely for the Melbourne auction with the imminent exhibition of Warhol’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria. 

Head After Picasso (1985) Lot 39, came to the hammer with an estimate of $1.3-1.6 million and was sold for $A1,718,182, which was just within estimate. The screen-printed canvas which harks from Warhol’s own collection, was a bit disheveled and showed evidence of having been folded. It had been previously auction by Menzies in 2008.

1. Ferdinand Leger: $A2,209,091

The highest figure recorded for an artwork that went under the hammer during 2015 was a painting by a foreign artist.

China Town (1943) was painted by the French artist Ferdinand Léger in the early 1940s was living in New York. Menzies had purchased the work in May for $A1.72 million at Sotheby’s in New York. The painting had come to the auction with an estimate of $1.3-$1.6 million.

The gamble paid off. The painting was sold just a month later in their June auction - Important Australian and International Fine Art – held in Melbourne (Lot 40). Principal Rodney Menzies told the Financial Review that it had been ‘bought by business investment bankers on my advice’ and that he was prepared to risk a loss as part of a longer-term plan to make international art the point of difference between Menzies and other local auction houses.

The timing was spot on – the New York auctions in May saw a blitz on hammer prices rising to extreme highs, Picasso’s The Women of Algiers (1955) sold for new record for the artist at US$160 million.

International is in and in demand and it is reaching Australia, although at a more modest rate.

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Gina Fairley

Tuesday 15 December, 2015

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

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