If you want to know the most collectable emerging Australian artists, then look offshore first.
Apart from Aboriginal art, which enjoys the support of both a thriving domestic and international market, Australia’s contemporary art market has been virtually hermetically sealed to foreign collectors: Australian contemporary art is almost exclusively collected by Australians, whether locals or expats.
This is despite the fact that most Australian contemporaries produce art which is international in terms of outlook and ideas, and lacks nothing in execution, ingenuity or inspiration when presented alongside the best international art.
Yet barely a handful are well-known in the artworld’s hot spots like Manhattan, London or Cologne. In an age where artists have joined the ranks of celebrity, only Melbourne sculptor Ron Mueck, officially hot enough to be collected by billionaire tastemaker Charles Saatchi, has achieved anything approaching superstar status.
Yet tides can turn quickly and last week’s successful launch in Berlin of “Face Up”, an important group show of Australian contemporary art, added credence to recent claims that our living artists are starting to make a real impact in the international arena. Of course for Australians, acclaim abroad always resonates loudest at home, thus the canniest investors in Australian art today are looking for artists who are busy building reputations overseas.
A typical target is the postmodern painter John Young. Mid-career and on a roll, this Hongkong-born, Sydney-educated, Melbourne-based artist has just been picked up a prestigious Berlin gallery, Pruess & Ochs. In the past year has had a sellout solo show with Sherman Galleries in Sydney, and shows in Hong Kong, and Berlin, with yet another planned for next month at Anna Schwartz Gallery Melbourne. Already in 2004 Young has solo shows lined up in Pirmasens in Germany, Sydney, Tel Aviv and even Bali. Group shows will take in Singapore, Beijing, Germany and Indonesia.
The auction market tells the tale. After barely a dozen works changed hands for small sums in the previous decade, at Deutscher~Menzies’ Sydney auction in March a work that cost $18,000 from Young’s 2001 show with Anna Schwartz sold for $32,900.
Young’s dealers have crept up prices in the past year to $25,000 - $32,000 for an average-sized work to $60,000 for large works. Such sums are still quite low for European collectors, making work of Young’s quality a bargain, but they represent a trebling in the past five years on the Australian scene, and those who have been buying Young’s works for the proverbial song since the early 1980s must now be feeling very happy.
And perhaps a little vindicated.
First published in The Bulletin