Young art collectors eye traditional works by Streeton and Roberts

Kerrie O'Brien, The Age, 8 November 2021

After many years out of circulation, masterpieces by revered Impressionists Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts are set to go under the hammer on Wednesday.

Streeton’s The Centre of the Empire (1902) is one of the Victorian-born artist’s first efforts at recreating what he saw in London around the turn of the century.

Listed at $1.2 million to $1.6 million, the impressive work depicts Trafalgar Square in the city’s trademark drizzle, created using pastel hues. Owned by the Creswick family since 1919, the 122.5 x 122.5 centimetre piece has been loaned to many exhibitions over the years.

Roberts’ A Modern Andromeda, 1891- 92, also set for auction, has spent more than a century in private hands in France. An exquisite piece, it depicts a young woman in a blue dress sitting under a parasol and was created at the rocks around Sydney’s Sirius Cove. Measuring just 45 x 10.8 centimetres, it is an excellent example of the artist’s work, completed at the peak of his career. It’s priced to sell for $400,000-$600,000.

Streeton and Roberts’ work is some of the most recognisable in the Australian canon and these paintings should command big, potentially record-breaking prices, says Chris Deutscher, executive director of Deutscher and Hackett.

“It’s all feeling pretty rosy but in the end it takes two to tango,” says Deutscher. “With our last Venetian Streeton, which did set that $3 million record, we were pretty much in the dark up until the last day. People don’t always show their hands – you might have one or two telephones booked but they might not bid.”

Deutscher has seen a surprising trend over the past five or so years: young buyers are looking to collect traditional art, with Streeton, Roberts and Frederick McCubbin key names. Female Australian artists such as Clarice Beckett are also generating more interest and higher prices – her works are ones to watch on Wednesday.

Big shows at major galleries around Australia are driving that trend and keeping such works in the public eye. (Streeton at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2020; Roberts at Canberra’s NGA in 2016; this year’s Clarice Beckett at the Art Gallery of South Australia; and McCubbin currently at Geelong are recent standouts.) Deutscher says younger collectors are also becoming more aware of Australian art history, and the quality of the works themselves is an obvious part of the attraction.

He says The Centre of the Empire “is so iconic and important in the scheme of things ... it deserves to bring a big price”.

Alex Creswick, a spokesperson for his family, says growing up he used to gaze up at Streeton’s painting in the dining room at his grandfather’s house. “It’s obviously quite different to the Streetons we’re used to seeing, with the bright colours and the Australian bush. This one is more that imperialistic thing, back in the day the link with the motherland, so I could always see the relevance,” he says.

Also under the hammer are pieces from chef Shannon Bennett’s impressive contemporary collection. It name-checks several of our top current-day Australian artists including Peter Booth, Patricia Piccinini and Bill Henson.