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Words: Kate Coughlan / Photographs: Tessa Chrisp
Dunbar Andrew Sloane returned from World War I with damaged lungs so couldn’t continue in his chemist’s shop on Wellington’s Lambton Quay as the required pounding of chemicals in a mortar and pestle affected his breathing. Instead, he started an auction house. He was followed into this by his son Clifford Dunbar who, the current Dunbar Snr says, was a wonderful auctioneer. Today’s Dunbar Snr (Dunbar Russell) initially qualified as a real-estate valuer before asking his father if he could join the family firm. He had to prove his genuine interest. “My father was happy for me to join as long as I started at the bottom and learned about the business. He didn’t make me and I didn’t make my son (Dunbar Michael). You can’t force it; it’ll only work if they want to.” Dunbar Michael runs the auction house today.
Dunbar Snr began as a storeman in the days when the auction house was flat out selling government stores that were surplus to requirement after the end of World War II. These famously included hundreds of thousands of condoms left behind by the US Marines which were eventually purchased in their entirety by a national consortium of chemists.
Dunbar says he made his money as a young man, mostly from importing “brown” (oak and mahogany) furniture and antiques from England where, due to war-induced poverty, prices were very low. A grandfather clock purchased in England for 12 pounds, for example, could fetch $700 in New Zealand in the 1970s.
“In the late 1970s I asked my father if I could close down the auction house for two weeks so I could hold an art auction. He was extremely worried. In those days turnover for a week in the auction mart was about $10,000. On the day of my art auction, which was the first major one in this country, there was a great swarm of people pushing in the doors. The sale turnover was $100,000. My father was so happy he told me any day I wanted to close the auction house, I could.”
In addition to bringing back antiques, the then-young Dunbar went to Europe hunting down Maori artefacts and chasing – another of his personal passions – paintings by Frances Hodgkins, an impressionist-influenced artist who’d left Dunedin early in the 20th century and lived mostly in England and on the Mediterranean coast.
Dunbar’s hunt for Maori artefacts took him to the seaports of Europe where he knew many early-contact artworks had ended up. “You go to the moon and bring back a piece of moon rock and it was like that with the early Europeans who came to New Zealand. They took home something they fancied from New Zealand. Liverpool was a great city in those days. Every ship and every sailor passed through Liverpool so it was a good place to look. Dublin was the same and I went there a lot too.”
Dunbar is of 32nd or 64th (he’s not sure) Rangitane blood with some Russian-Jewish ancestry but is mostly of Scottish descent. He brought back the Maori artefacts because he thought they were great art, he was proud of them and felt they belonged in New Zealand. And because he’s a trader, of course.
What does he think makes great art?
“It’s all in the eye of the beholder. That said, there are definite periods during which serious artists are in their prime and those best periods are generally not at the beginning of their careers nor at the end.”
Dunbar turns to the work of painter Frances Hodgkins to illustrate his point. “If you look at Pumpkins and Pimenti (see below) which she painted in 1935, you’ll see the work flows, the artist is confident and you can tell she is experienced. She painted this one before World War II so it is optimistic in the colours and in the content. You can see that this is an artist at the height of their powers. Often, later in their careers they don’t paint as well, and you can see that too.”
Of the 100 or so Frances Hodgkins works that Dunbar has auctioned (40 or 50 of which he repatriated), he is especially proud of this one (and another called Three Men in a Boat).
The hunt for works of art by Frances Hodgkins
“I’d always been aware of Frances Hodgkins and liked her work and then I read in a book by Kenneth Clark [Lord Clark, the great art historian who presented the TV series Civilisation] that he had owned a Frances Hodgkins. By absolute chance I was in London, probably at a sale at Christies or Sothebys where I used to go to buy the Maori artefacts, and I saw Lord Clark in a club, one of those gentlemen’s clubs in London – I can’t remember the name. So I was quite cheeky and introduced myself and said that I’d read he had a Frances Hodgkins. He told me that in his opinion Frances Hodgkins would become known as the greatest woman artist of the 20th century and he advised me if I had any money to buy her work.
“Many years later, in the 1980s, I read that Lord Clark had died and so I contacted his son, the British MP Alan Clark, and asked if he’d like to sell the Frances Hodgkins. He agreed and I went to England to collect it. I paid him in London and then drove down to his home, Saltwood Castle in Kent, to collect it. There the fun started. Lord Clark’s wife opened the door, a great big castle door above a moat, and after I told her I’d come to collect the painting she began going on about her husband and how he’d been having an affair... I didn’t think I was going to get the painting. I’d just paid 17,000 pounds for it so I had my foot in the door and wasn’t budging. She ordered Glenda (my wife) back to the car and eventually let me in.
“There it was, in the home of the greatest art critic in the world, hanging over the fireplace in the drawing-room, the most important position in the whole house – the painting Pumpkin and Pimenti by Frances Hodgkins.”
Pumpkin and Pimenti is now owned by the Fletcher Collection and is sometimes available for public viewing. fletchercollection.org.nz/index.php?q=Pumpkins+and+Pimenti)
The other great Hodgkins that Dunbar found was in the private collection of one of the Pirelli brothers in Geneva. “It is very, very exciting to find something fresh and here it was… a wonderful, wonderful Frances Hodgkins that no one had ever seen before. Very exciting. She’d caught that peculiar harsh Mediterranean landscape, the dry and the light.
“This Pirelli family – the tyre people – had yachts so they probably bought it in Ibiza, the Spanish seaside town in which Frances Hodgkins spent some time in the 1930s. It had a sticker on it – one hundred and ten guineas.” Dunbar was told he couldn’t buy the painting but he could swap it for another that was about to go to auction at Sothebys in London. Dunbar acquired it and the swap went ahead as agreed. Three Men in a Boat today hangs in a private collection in Auckland.
What makes a good auctioneer?
“An auction is like a little opera with the drama of more than one person wanting the same thing. A good auctioneer has to make people believe that what they’re selling is valuable. Then it’s up to the buyers and the auctioneer runs the bidding like a conductor with an orchestra. It’s all about human nature. The same thing happens every time: the people who miss out tell themselves ‘I should have made just one bid more’ and the people who bought the item tell themselves ‘I paid too much’. It never changes. People always think the same.
Most exciting sale
“A steam locomotive at Paekakarikri: two people owned it and there was an argument about which one would have it so they went to court. The judge ruled that it be auctioned by Dunbar Sloane. The one who bid the most would get the locomotive and the other one would get a pile of cash. So it was a bit like the judgement of Solomon. I quoted a 15 percent auctioneer’s fee because I thought it would sell for around $10,000 and it took off. They both bid like crazy and it went up and up and up and finally sold for $90,000. So that was a great auction.”
What I’m most proud of in my career
“Helping bring the recognition they deserve to early-contact Maori artefacts, then finding many overseas to repatriate.
“Highlighting the acclaim due to painter Frances Hodgkins and bringing many of her best works back to New Zealand.”
For the more on Dunbar Sloane please see Issue 47 of NZ Life & Leisure