Art market gets back in the frame: the alternative investment has defied the Covid pandemic

James Kirby, The Australian, 17 December 2021

Art investors have just racked up the best year since 2017 after a late rush in the auction rooms meant the sector could hold its own against bumper returns from shares and property.

Joanna Strumpf of Sydney Gallery Sullivan and Strumpf suggests: “It didn’t start very well but as the year went on we realised that closed international borders meant that collectors started focusing hard on what the domestic market had to offer. In the end if was a good year – especially for Australian women painters.”

Most investors are already familiar with the vagaries of the art market where many pieces will never return profits, but 2021 was all the more remarkable because galleries were closed for months and total sales in the local market had been fading since 2017, when they reached $142m.

But with only days to go in 2021, total auction sales now look like reaching $120m – up from $108m last year.

What happened? At auction house Deutscher and Hackett, executive director Damian Hackett says: “We’re all trying to figure it out. Initially it looked like the sky might fall in, then we had a great turnaround.

“Of course one key element is that interest rates are so low and that means cash investments are doing nothing, people are actively investing and they are more willing to buy online now – that became hugely important,” he explains.

Deutscher and Hackett led the market with $32m in sales and also handled the knockout auction of the year – record $3.06m for an Arthur Streeton painting of the Grand Canal Venice.

In terms of highest prices this year, Streeton took out two of the top five: $3.1m for The Grand Canal (1908) and the Centre of the Empire (1902), which went for $1.5m. Brett Whiteley had the second highest seller – The Dove in the Mango Tree (1984) for $2m. Frederick McCubbin came in fourth with What the Little Girl Saw in the Bush (1904) at $1.5m and Jeffrey Smart fifth with The Arezzo Turn-Off (1973) at $1.4m.

Better still, the strong momentum in the market was not just for Streetons or other household names but also for the burgeoning middle market. All up 78 new artists’ records were achieved and almost a third of those records went to women artists.