Ray Hughes' collection a portrait of a man

by Peter Fish | The Australian Financial Review | 9 May 2018

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From Australian paintings by acclaimed figures like Fred Williams and William Robinson to tribal wares, Afghan rugs and European art – and much else besides – the late Ray Hughes was a man of multiple enthusiasms who indulged them to the fullest. He also had a knack of acquiring works by artists who became highly popular, says auctioneer Andrew Shapiro, citing Peter Booth, Robert Klippel and New Zealander Colin McCahon.

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Shapiro will conduct the sale of the formidable art dealer's collection on May 14 and 15 in Sydney's Woollahra, near its permanent premises. Comprising over 550 lots it is expected to raise more than $1 million. . In a near-50 year career as one of the art world's most diversified dealers, there was scarcely an area that escaped Hughes's eager and eclectic eye during the 32 years he presided over his cavernous warehouse gallery in Sydney's then insalubrious Surry Hills.

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Hughes passed away last year at 72, a large, passionate figure unique in the relatively subdued ranks of Sydney's art dealer fraternity. His wide span of enthusiasms had few equals but his acerbic manner earned him plenty of critics. When Hughes became ill, his son Evan took over much of the running of the gallery, but opted to let out the building two years ago while standing, unsuccessfully, against Malcolm Turnbull for the federal seat of Wentworth. He is now operating from smaller premises in Moncur Street.

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Into foreign fields

The son of a Brisbane grocer, Hughes opened his first gallery in that city 1969. By 1985 he was operating in Sydney, and soon bought out the premises previously occupied by another dealer, the late Rudy Komon. From there he launched numerous exhibitions, initially favouring Queensland artists like William Robinson, Robert Macpherson and Joe Furlonger but increasingly pushing into foreign fields – German expressionist prints, modern Chinese paintings, even folk art were among his passions.

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He exhibited London sculptor Anish Kapoor, whose work now regularly commands in excess of $1 million, and his sale offers works by modern British artists the late Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Heron. It's likely few could have such a span of imported wares today, because of the need to pay GST upfront on imports. Hughes was among the first to appreciate the art of William Robinson, notably his farmyard paintings. And he continued to favour Robinson's work, as is demonstrated by the number of this artist's works in the sale. Among them is one of the pricier pictures, Sandcastles with Shells and Feather from 1995, which carries an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000, and Cow, a gouache at $20,000 to $30,000. Robinson's amusing portrait of the gallery owner himself, portrayed with a bow tie and rabbit ears, is estimated at $8000 to $12,000.

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Williams, Gascoigne and Prescott

Fred Williams is another favoured artist, with several gouaches on offer including a rare harbour scene, Sydney Harbour 1975 at $40,000 to $60,000, which was exhibited by the National Trust in August 1979. Two other Williams works are Australian Landscape, estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, and Landscape at $15,000 to $25,000. Other early works include Rosalie Gascoigne's wood and collage work Bird Sanctuary from 1975 at $20,000 to $30,000 and Margaret Preston's woodcut, Swan River Daisy from 1925 at $7000 to $9000.

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Among the more colourful images is Sydney artist Peter Powditch's Sun Torso, from a series that became highly popular in the 1960s and 70s. Estimate is $5000 to $7000. Other prominent works from that era include several by Colin McCahon – Jesus Falls a Second Time at $30,000 to $50,000 and the works on paper Landscape and Sketch, estimated at $15,000 to $25,000 each. The sale has already attracted attention outside Australia, says Shapiro. "There's been a lot of international interest... from New York, London and Paris in the works from China and Africa," he says. Among a host of contemporary works by Chinese artists – many of them first exhibited in Australia by Hughes – is Jun Chen's Field, 2008, a 1.4m by 1.6m work featured at the Hughes Gallery's June-July 2009 exhibition, estimated at $18,000 to $24,000. Also drawing interest, says Shapiro, are works by a Nigerian photographer, JD Okhai Ojeikere, whose portraits of exotically coiffed figures carry estimates of $8000 to $12,000 each. The sale offers a wealth of works on paper by John Olsen, Charles Blackman, Ken Whisson and Sybil Craig as well as international figures including Pierre Bonnard and Max Beckmann. There's a rich offering of ceramics.

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Among many curiosities: two works formed from glass bottles flattened on one side, each titled Reclining Drunk, by British artists Gilbert and George, estimate $2000 to $3000 each. At first sight, Shapiro says, they were assumed to be a pair of glass ashtrays. Session two on the Tuesday also offers tribal art, rustic furniture and typical "Hughesiana" – curiosities such as African sculptures formed from safety helmets, Haitian voodoo wall hangings, Afghan rugs woven with military themes and Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda figures. Meanwhile Shapiro is also gearing up for an Australian and International Art auction on May 17 in Sydney, with highlights including a large Arthur Boyd, Riverbank with Reflections estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, William Robinson's Bright Sea at $50,000 to $70,000, and Sydney Ball's Infinex Span at $40,000 to $60,000.

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RAY HUGHES: A LIFE WITH ART

Auction - Mon 14 and Tue 15 May 6pm

Catalogue Online here.