Occasionally, auction houses will host what are called single owner sales – auctions where all the art comes from one source. There can be fanfare around these events, a chance to marvel (or snoop around) at what one entity has amassed over a collecting lifetime. Even more interesting however, is that they can perform exceptionally well, better than if all the works were still auctioned but at different times. Why? As single owners yourselves, understanding the magic behind these auctions may offer guidance for your own collecting practice.
Big Banks, Celebrities and Icons
Two of the three main types of single owners sales are sales from celebrities or the ultra wealthy, and corporations. In 2018, actor Russell Crowe auctioned his collection with Sotheby’s after he and his wife divorced. A sparkle of scandal encircled the event, devilishly named The Art of Divorce, that lured interest; starpower and gossip are powerful drawcards.
In the case of the ultra wealthy and corporations, a different kind of starpower entices: iconic artists. With bottomless pockets, corporations and the ultra wealthy can collect a Noah’s Ark of the most famous artists, meaning that when it comes time to auction them there will always be well-established interest. Order these auctions from highest price and the same names recur: Fred Williams; Charles Blackman; John Brack; Jeffrey Smart, Arthur Boyd; Frederick McCubbin; Sidney Nolan.
Je ne sais quoi
The tip to learn from single owner sales of celebrities and corporations is get rich or famous – not very helpful. There is, however, a third kind of single owner sale that can inspire – those from art dealers or art lovers. These can perform very well, not because of wealth or celebrity but instead, connoisseurship.
When they are an art dealer’s estate, these auctions gleam with a life spent immersed in art – learning about, befriending and trading artists. When they are private collectors, the magic lies in the courage and devotion it takes to build a cohesive collection. An example of this kind of sale is The Fred and Elinor Wrobel Collection: A Curated Salon. Auctioned in 2023, 91% of 76 lots sold at a value of 133% (earning $737,300 without Buyer’s Premium).
The scope of Fred and Elinor Wrobel’s collection is relatively narrow: modernist abstractions; still lifes; and portraits, particularly of women. The highest earning work was a self portrait by Nora Heysen; there are no examples by Williams, Blackman, Brack, Boyd or Smart, whose best known subjects fall outside the Wrobels’s scope.
The Wrobels built their collection over many years, befriending many artists and holding steady to their instincts, even when the market seemed uninterested. They had the foresight to collect Modern Female artists, eventually loaning their holdings to the Penrith Regional Art Gallery in 1995 for their exhibition Australian Women Artists of the 20th Century.
For single owner sales not steeped in celebrity or wealth, it is connoisseurship that sparkles – a sense that the collection is more than the sum of its parts, the fruit of someone who truly cares about art and has the vision to pursue their taste. In this, the importance of collecting itself emerges, how it can add value, record a moment in history or shimmer with a je ne sais quoi.