Nolan art hits target

First Class Marksman, one of Sidney Nolan's paintings from his first 1946 Ned Kelly series, sold for $5.4 million, including buyer's premium, through Menzies Art Brands in March 2010.

This made it the highest-selling Australian artwork, breaking the previous record of $3.48 million for a Brett Whiteley sold in 2007. At the time, Menzies was coy about identifying the winning bidder. It was later revealed as the Art Gallery of NSW.

Since then, the words ''Sidney Nolan'', ''Ned Kelly'' and ''for sale'' are enough to cause a tremor in the secondary art market, even though most paintings from the 1946 series - if not all - are now safely held by public institutions, predominantly the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.

Fortunately for private collectors and investors, there was a second Ned Kelly series, first exhibited in London in 1955. These are now the ones most likely to turn up at auction.

Values for these are around the $800,000 to $1.2 million mark. This was the range of estimates for Ned Kelly: Crossing the River, the 1955 painting that appeared last week at Sotheby's sale of Important Australian and International Art in Melbourne. It was sold to a private collector for $960,000, including buyer's premium, a strong result in the climate.

Sotheby's had a good night overall, recording sales of $4.27 million, or 97 per cent of what the auction house had expected.

Only 49 of the 69 lots sold, suggesting that buyers know what they want and won't take a punt on anything else.

Other notable results included two paintings by Australian artist Jeffrey Smart, selling for $456,000 and $324,000. These were the two best results after the Sidney Nolan.

Securing the work was a personal triumph for Sotheby's Australia chairman Geoffrey Smith, a recognised Sidney Nolan authority. He curated a major exhibition on Nolan's work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003, leading to a friendship with Jinx Nolan, the daughter of Sidney and Cynthia Nolan.

''We met again when I was in New York six weeks ago,'' Smith says. ''Jinx and I had numerous conversations about this painting. I've known about it for many, many years - but only seen it in black and white.''

This is a reference to this work's inclusion in a couple of books on Sidney Nolan, where it is reproduced in monochrome. The painting was first exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in London in 1955, where some perceptive buyer could have picked it up for 95 guineas. No one was interested, not even the British art critic who described this Ned Kelly series as ''intellectually more coherent'' than the first.

The painting has never been sold before and was last exhibited as part of the Cynthia Nolan Collection at the David Jones Art Gallery in Sydney in 1975. Since then, it has hung on the wall of Jinx Nolan's home in New York. In the catalogue, she describes it as a comforting part of her life.

While Smith admits that the iconic 1946 Ned Kelly series will always have greater stature, he, too, is a fan of the second series. Even these works are becoming harder to find. He estimates that as few as 12 remain in private hands. One pair of those hands belongs to Kerry Stokes.

''The estimate is conservative but realistic in the current climate,'' Smith said before last week's auction.

He was cautiously optimistic of a strong result because another in this series sold for $600,000 in 2010. That one was a third the size of this.

The work of Sidney Nolan has long been in the blue-chip category but recent results and the attention of national and state galleries have added to his market value. This trend is expected to continue.

That record-breaking 1946 Ned Kelly was a win for the Steve Vizard art foundation and the various charities it represents. Before Vizard's period of ownership, the painting sold in 1989 for a mere $825,000.

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