Eva Breuer: A Charmed Life - Art Collector

Issue 14 October-December 2000

Andrew Frost visits the Woollahra gallery of Eva Breuer, who in just six years has established a reputation as one of Sydney's leading secondary market dealers.

It’s a cold late afternoon in August when we visit Eva Breuer at her Moncur Street gallery in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. The gallery is lit like a beacon in the dark street, and from the outside, passers-by can see works hanging by Brett Whiteley, Arthur Boyd, John Coburn and Leonard French, among others. It’s 5pm but people are in the gallery examining works, while Breuer and her two assistants make strong coffee. The building also looks very familiar. "Yes, it's the building from Number 96," says Eva Breuer. "People ask me that all the time." The scandalous 1970s TV soap opera was set in a working class Paddington that doesn't exist anymore. Today, instead of Aldo's deli and the wine bar of that fictitious Paddington, it's Eva Breuer's gallery of Woollahra, the Moncur Bistro and Jones, The (Exclusive) Grocer. Although the climate is a lot more rarefied these days, Breuer and her staff are friendly and down to earth. Breuer opened her gallery in 1994 and in the six years since her first exhibition, the gallery has expanded into the shopfront next door. More importantly, Breuer has established herself as one of the leading secondary market dealers in Australia. Her philosophy is simple. “What I’m trying to do is sell museum quality paintings,” she found a work that caught her eye. It was David Boyd’s Blind Isaac. Examining the back of the work, Breuer discovered a label from the Prime Minister’s Department. She knew immediately that the work was a picture that had been de-accessioned from the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Buying the work for just $1,200, she then on-sold the picture for $17,000. Breuer estimates that the picture would be worth $50,000 today. “I’m not from an impoverished background by any means, “she admits. “But I needed money to get started. That sale gave me the chance to open a gallery.”

Setting up shop in Paddington was a logical move for Breuer, but one that had some unexpected challenges. “I thought it would be an extension of dealing but I found that it was very, very different,” she says. “Working from home, I didn’t have to organise exhibitions every three weeks or deal with the general public. I didn’t have to employ anyone; I was a one-man band. The gallery was very different.” Although Breuer’s family and friends had told her that the new gallery was simply too small, she was still confident. “It was very different to dealing, but it was an interesting experience having those first shows,” she remembers. Buying the work for just $1,200, Breuer then on-sold it for $17,000. She estimates that the picture would be worth $50,000 today. “I’m not from an impoverished background by any means,“ admits Breuer. “But I needed money to get started. That sale gave me the chance to open a gallery.” says Breuer. “Or sell paintings that people can derive pleasure from. We’re looking for key works by key artists.” Breuer came to the arts in the 1980s. As a mature age student she went to Sydney University and studied Fine Arts. After a brief period as a high school teacher, she chanced upon the world of art dealing. “In 1988, while I was teaching, I was asked by the Cancer Council to coordinate something called the Million Dollar Print Project,” recalls Breuer. “That entailed getting artists like Arthur Boyd, Lloyd Rees, Colin Lanceley and Brian Dunlop to do a print that they would donate to the Cancer Council for sale. It was very successful and that’s what gave me the idea that I didn’t want to teach – I wanted to deal in art. A friend asked me to help her with her collection, which I did, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The future gallerist began dealing from home, astutely buying and selling works on the secondary market. Breuer’s purchases were timely because, although the art market at the end of the 1980s was red hot, Breuer traded in works that were still relatively cheap. “While I was doing the print project, the Australian Opera had also had a print project happening,” remembers Breuer. “There was a John Brack print that was selling for $200. I knew by my association with the print project and looking at prices generally, that it was worth at least $800. I bought five of them and went to Melbourne and sold them to (Deutscher-Menzies managing director) Chris Deutscher, who was a dealer at the time.” Breuer parlayed that first step into the market into a series of similarly profitable sales. Until 1994, Breuer hadn’t thought of opening a gallery, continuing to deal works from her home. When the market crashed in 1993, neither the money nor the opportunity to open a gallery existed. Then a serendipitous event took place that seems typical of Breuer’s charmed art life. While examining lots for sale at a Joel’s auction in Melbourne, TThe gallerist flips through a folder of invitations and room sheets as we talk, enthusiastically recalling the first few shows at the new gallery. Breuer’s debut exhibition was called Modern Women. “There were works by Tony Tuckson, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester – lots of really fantastic paintings,” remembers Breuer. “I received quite a bit of press. I was lucky because Elwynn Lynn was living down the road. He used to walk by and look at everything I was doing. People had also lent me work for the show… but not one painting sold.” Undeterred, Breuer pressed on with the next exhibition, a collection of 90 works on paper by Merric Boyd. Unlike the gallery’s debut, the exhibition sold well. Breuer was on her way. As AAC talks with Breuer, a man and woman in their fifties begin to examine a small painting by Robert Dickerson. As one of the gallery assistants talks quietly with the couple, Breuer keeps one eye on them. Eventually, the gallery assistant asks Breuer whether the couple could get a discount on the asking price, $6,900. Breuer excuses herself from the interview and huddles with her assistant in an adjacent room. She returns and tells the couple that she’s prepared to knock $150 off as a show of good faith. The couple seem unimpressed by the offer, suggesting that the price is too high. Breuer says that the price is actually very good for a Dickerson, offering a money-back guarantee if they can find a better price elsewhere. They begin to waiver, and ask how long they have to decide. Breuer advises them that the current owner of the picture is taking it back to Bowral the following day at noon. The couple offer $6,200. “That’s a firm offer,” says the man. “You never know your luck in a big city,” Breuer replies. There is an exchange of business cards and the couple leave. Breuer’s performance is masterful – a little pressure, a money back guarantee, less than 24 hours to make a decision. She sits down to continue the interview.

“What I’m trying to do is sell museum quality paintings… key works by key artists.” and catalogues for new works for her collectors. Attending auctions is something that the gallerist calls a “necessary evil” but she enthusiastically discusses specialist collections that she has helped put together, one is a collection of work entirely by Australian women artists, another is a collection of 1960s abstract paintings. Breuer also happily assists collectors to get started, advising them to buy the best they can afford. Would she actively discour-We comment that the pictures on the walls represent some of the biggest names in Australian art. “It’s not just the names,” Breuer retorts, “They’re good examples.” age someone from buying something she knew wasn’t the artist’s best work? “The best of a particular artist may be beyond that person’s budget, but they may be able to buy the best graphic by that artist,” states Breuer. “Those works can be museum quality as well. It’s not necessarily a price thing.” So being a dealer is partly about educating buyers? “Yes, that’s what art collecting is – continual education. It is the dealer’s role to facilitate that education. The art market is a minefield and there aren’t that many people who can go out there and become thoroughly versed in certain aspects of Australian art before they begin to buy... it’s a continual learning process.” Breuer has also dabbled in representing artists and talks about the “relationships” she has established over the years. “Early on I decided that I wasn’t going to represent artists,” says Breuer. “That did change, but I only represent a handful of people like David Boyd and Brian Dunlop. David Boyd was my first representational show. But I also have relationships with artists like Garry Shead, although I don’t actually represent him. “He’s with Australian Galleries but I do get his work nonetheless. (Australian Galleries director) Stuart Purves knows about it. I have had relationships with these artists for years, like John Coburn. I’ve got a show with John coming up. He’s giving me six major works and six studies and it’s a tribute to (veteran jazz pianist) Graeme Bell called Jazz. Because there are only 12 works, I’m supplementing the show with works I bought. In terms of ownership, the whole of the two galleries will be filled with his work and my work. He’s sweet. He’s thrilled.”

Eva Breuer poses before John Coburn’s 1965 painting, Canticle of the Sun, for which she paid a record $55,200 at Christie’s landmark Mertz sale in June. Breuer immediately offered the work to collectors at her inaugural exhibition of Coburn in September, 2000. Prior to the hanging she told Australian Art Collector she expected the work to sell in “the high seventies”. BBreuer is nonplussed about artists who have mixed feelings about seeing their works changing hands for big sums in the secondary market, while they receive nothing. As Breuer sees it, secondary market activity help increase awareness of an artist’s work which in turn raises the price of their current work. “I began buying Garry Shead’s work in 1987,” she explains. “His works were $3,000 then they went up slowly to $5,000 and then $9,000. Now they’re in the $30,000 to $60,000 range. People in the secondary market help artists find a niche for themselves in the market place.” So artists are happy with the relationship? “Artists love the relationship,” says Breuer. Breuer is an enthusiast. Her conversation is full of excitement and good humour. She is also a very astute business woman. I comment that the pictures hanging on the gallery walls represent some of the biggest names in Australian art. “It’s not just the names; they’re good examples,” says Breuer. “The Leonard French is the best period for French – the 1960s. The Kevin Connors are very good works from the 1970s. The Brian Dunlop. Roland Wakelin.” The list goes on.

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