BNZ Art Collection: Colin McCahon artworks sold for millions of dollars

Some of the BNZ Art Collection is auctioned off at Webb’s on Sunday. RNZ / Felix Walton

Five works by NZ artist Colin McCahon have sold for millions of dollars at the BNZ Art Collection this afternoon – and concerns about their sale are still being raised.

Colin McCahon’s 1982 painting Is There Anything of Which One Can Say, Look, This Is New? set a new all-time record for an artwork sold at auction in New Zealand when it sold for $2.39m. It had an estimate of between $1.5 and $2.5m.

His O Let Us Weep was sold for $926,125.

But most of the paintings at this afternoon’s auction for the BNZ Art Collection – including McCahon’s Small Bush Covered Hillside, Kauri and Gray Sky, Red Earth Works – have sold for above their upper estimate.

Brent Wong’s Town Boundary sold for $472,025, while the Fugitive by Tony Fomison sold for $1.82m – its estimate was $600,000-$900,000.

Among the BNZ collection of more than 200 artworks were pieces by some of the country’s most important artists, Rita Angus, Gordon Walters, Toss Woollaston, Gretchen Albrecht, Milan Mrkusich, Don Binney and Ralph Hotere.

Webb’s Auction director of art Charles Ninow earlier said it was one of the most significant auctions in New Zealand history.

Total sales at part one of the auction exceeded $13.5m.

“This is the greatest corporate collection New Zealand has ever seen, Ninow said. “It contains many artworks that can absolutely hold their own with the best works in this country’s public collections.”

The Fugitive by Tony Fomison (left) sold for $1.82m - its estimate was $600,000 - $900,000.  RNZ / Felix Walton
The Fugitive by Tony Fomison (left) sold for $1.82m – its estimate was $600,000 – $900,000. RNZ / Felix Walton

However, there have been objections to the auction of such significant art pieces to private buyers, with former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark saying BNZ should not be selling millions of dollars worth of art that was initially purchased when the bank was state-owned.

Head of marketing and communications for Te Papa, Kate Camp, said they had acquired two paintings at the auction, but said they would have welcomed the opportunity to make an offer on works ahead of the auction.

The paintings acquired by Te Papa are Glenda at Tahakopa, by Robin White, purchased for $406,300 and Design by A. Lois White, purchased for $221,075.

She said BNZ notified them ahead of time about the auction, but there was no opportunity to buy outside of the auction process or to receive items as a donation.

“Te Papa sees the value in having works in public collections and would always encourage collectors to think of public collections first when selling works,” Camp said.

Glenda at Tahakopa, by Robin White, purchased for $406,000 by Te Papa at the BNZ art collection auction.  Photo / Supplied.
Glenda at Tahakopa, by Robin White, purchased for $406,000 by Te Papa at the BNZ art collection auction. Photo / Supplied.

Te Papa’s chief executive Courtney Johnston said the national museum would always encourage corporate and private collectors to consider donating artworks to public collections if they are dispersing a collection.

“We encourage any collector to think about the legacy they create when they put works into public hands, where they can be held in trust for future generations,” Johnston said.

“There is a limit to what public institutions in New Zealand can afford to buy, and as the market becomes more expensive, the public will depend more on the generosity and vision of collectors who choose to donate works.”

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark said BNZ should not be selling millions of dollars worth of art that was initially purchased when the bank was state-owned.

Today, Auckland Art Gallery also claimed BNZ dismissed its concerns over the sale of significant New Zealand artwork.

Gallery director Kirsten Lacy said the artworks were purchased when the BNZ was in state ownership but transferred when it was privatised.

She thought they should be available for everyone to see.

“There’s a special care for a corporate collection like that, to consider the national interest, and the bank is not interested in having a dialogue about what that means in terms of New Zealand’s cultural assets.”

BNZ was not interested in talking to her about the collection, Lacy said, but the bank said it had no formal approaches from galleries.

BNZ general manager of corporate affairs Cliff Joiner said the future of the BNZ Art Collection had been given careful consideration by the board over a two-year period.

The company decided the best way to continue to support the legacy of the art collection was to pass the privilege of looking after the works to others, and to support communities through the proceeds, he said.

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