Australian Art Collector caught up with Australian Galleries' Stuart Purves in Rome, where the dealer was passing through en route to Tuscany where he planned to take possession of the latest raft of works from his octogenarian stable star, Jeffrey Smart.
STUART PURVES: I’ve come to Italy to honour Jeffrey [Smart], who’s in his early eighties now, and why not, we’ve been dealing with eachother for over a quarter of a century. I am a second generation dealer and I had two parents [Anne and Tam Purves] who were full-time art dealers. Believe it or not I’m the oldest continuing art dealer in the business. I can’t believe it coz I’m still young and that shows you how young the art world is in this country. But what it all comes down to that it is art before money. It really isn’t a business, instead you’re more like a leaf floating down the river, steering a course. There’s no real competition in the art world because everybody is in a sense heading in the same direction - to find that kernel of proper and inspiring art. There’s too much chasing of the money in it today. The money’s there, it’s always been there for good things–
MICHAEL HUTAK: -but as a dealer your responsibility is two-fold - one to your collectors and one to your artists–
SP: -and one to myself! I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’ll wring as much out of it as I can. But what you have to ensure first is that you’re putting good work forward, and then make a powerful shot at the money. Not the other way round.
MH: - there’s no mint to be made out of mediocre art.
SP: You can for a while, but then it goes back to that adage that eventually you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
MH: What effect has the rise of the auction scene in Australia had on your business?
SP: Absolutely fantastic. If you took the auction scene out of the galleries now, the prices would go back to about a quarter of what they are now. They’ve popularised it and they’ve proved it. The thing is they have also destroyed some artists as well, but they are quite forgiving in that they don’t talk about that much, whereas they sure as hell make a big fuss about the things that go up. It’s a bit like an undercurrent, it’s inclined to drag everything along – rubbish, weeds, sand, shells, crabs the whole lot - and I think that’s the effect it has had on the entire art world.
I remember one day, I was at Euen Heng’s place, we’d been dealing with him for quite some time and he’d never been offered at auction and I was looking at the work as we were about to have an exhibition. So I was looking and thinking, this work was just fantastic and I thought what can I do here, and I turned to Euen and said ‘We’re going to double the prices’. They were $9000, they would now be $18,000. Well, he went pale, I got in the car with a dry throat thinking 'what have I done?', but I might tell you they sold better at $18,000 than they had at $9000. His previous clients who’d bought three or four were thrilled because the works they’d bought had immediately doubled in value and it was simply a case of saying, well if we don’t respect this artist’s work how can we expect anyone else to?
But the whole thing was also timing. I didn’t do it when it wasn’t ready. I didn’t do it until the day I looked at these paintings and thought, shit, this guy is a real artist and we had better respect that. It’s not as flippant as that either. We changed our attitude on framing, we produced a proper catalogue, we backed it up, we played the right music for it and it’s worked out very, very well.
MH: And that’s now Heng’s new base level.
SP: Absolutely, and I think we’ll be doing it again, because he really deserves to be up there and one of the ways you can call that attention is to raise the prices. I mean you can show and show and show, but sometimes you have to make the leap of faith and back your artist’s talent.
MH: What happens when say an artist like Jeffrey Smart has a breakthrough sale at auction that is streets ahead of his current gallery price? How do you cope with that?
SP: It’s pretty easy. You just add a zero to everything you’ve got in the stockroom. (laughs) But, what it means is this: it’s time. It’s as simple as that - the market has told you. Because for every sale like that there’s an underbidder. Jeffrey is a perfect example, he’s been a perfect gentleman in every sense of the word, and his paintings have honoured him in the same way.
Like I said we’ve been representing Jeffrey for over 25 years and the first painting we sold of his was a thing called The Dome. It’s quite famous now, and we sold that for $6000, good money in those days but now we sell similar works for $250,000 maybe $300,000. I think it gets back to the fact that Jeffrey’s senior, and the art world is interested much more in itself than it once was and therefore it is looking back to its senior artists, and they are few in number on the ground. It has to go that way. He’s also had recent retrospectives, [Art Gallery of New South Wales’ director] Edmund Capon is a fan and that doesn’t go astray.
I’m now becoming more interested in the contemporary area. When my parents ran the gallery, you have to think I grew up with Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Fred Williams, John Olsen and Brett Whiteley, and then I’ve done my own reshaping and I’ve made the gallery quite big – I mean it’s now four galleries in two cities, a production department, it employs 14 people, it needs ten thousand fresh dollars of profit every day to stay in business, we have a publishing program. But the other thing is I feel as though I've got to keep growing with it so an artist can grow through the gallery, doesn’t have to leave and go somewhere else.
Think of Brian Johnson, Violet Guila, William Mora, Rudy Komon – the common factor with all those dealers is that their galleries died with them and I don’t want that to happen to our gallery. It’s a long term family business, it will be 50 years old on June 13th of 2006, we’re going to do a big production book for that. We’ve got a record of every exhibition we’ve ever had going back to 1956, the date and what pictures were in it. We’re scrapbook people. (I might tell you our house burnt down in 1970 and we lost an enormous amount of records, two Boyd Bride paintings – the impact killed my father, he died at 59 years old.) But we’ve got 25 volumes of newspaper clippings, the State Library has a program where they keep our correspondence. I’m interested in shoring up what my parents started, I’m interested in my own success with this group people that I represent now, and I’m interested in starting two contemporary galleries, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, so that the whole thing continues to roll on.
Abridged version published in Australian Art Collector