Gould Galleries: Closing Ranks - Art Collector

Issue 36 April-June 2006

Rob Gould is a survivor. With auction houses increasingly covering ground that was once occupied by dealer-galleries inthe secondary market and fewer secondary dealers withstanding the competition, it takes a discerning artist list, a bunch of happy clients and a willingness to take tough, pragmatic decisions to stay afloat. Gould, with 25 years in the art business, has all that and more: plenty of drive and a willingness to talk straight he spoke to Carmel Dwyer.

Australian Art Collector: You recently closed your Sydney gallery. Why did you take that decision?
Rob Gould: My main business has always been in Melbourne and the decision to close the Sydney gallery was basically an issue of time. Sydney was successful but it was exhausting travelling back and forth between two cities. It was more about having some playtime. I doubt it will have a big net affect on the business.

AAC: How is the market for you at the moment?
RG: We have had a good six months, but different galleries have different experiences in different conditions. We have seen how the traditional market has waned over the past few years and then you have something like the Fosters sale, where prices for traditional paintings went through the roof, then return to being depressed. We’re ready for a major shift in the prices of modernist artists. People seem to think there is an unlimited supply of these artists but a lot of works have changed hands in recent times – part of a generational shift of ownership – and it’s going to get harder to find supply.

AAC: What other factors are having an impact on the secondary market?
RG: Auction houses have become more involved and voracious. Once they were wholesalers, now they’re hyper retailers. In addition to holding auctions they are private dealing. There are very few dealers – by which I mean private galleries – trading and buying on the secondary market. I’m one of the few still doing it and I probably survived because I’m more selective than most about what I will handle. There are plenty of dealers who have got out of the business. Auction houses attract business with the seduction of the promise of a big win. And the line that they don’t charge anything up front. But they do charge the buyer’s premium as well as a sales percentage. It’s one of the few businesses that effectively acts for both parties in a transaction and charges both of them as well. The auction houses have really become dominant in the past 10 years and work on a different price-setting mechanism from the gallery market. We’ve seen a lot of examples where artists’ works have fetched higher prices at auction than in normal retail sales. People have gravitated towards auctions as an easy way to see a range of art and artists and in search of bargains, but both of these things are largely illusory.

AAC: What are the biggest issues that flow on from these attitudes?
RG: One thing that irks me is the way auction houses in particular have encouraged the public’s appetite for art as investment. For some people this is the primary attraction and they are looking for quick price rises and turnovers – it often creates a false market or a false sense of demand. A lot of people lose sight of the fact that art is for pleasure.

AAC: How do art auctions fit with your business?
RG: I buy at auction but I rarely sell at auction. A lot of people go to auctions with so little knowledge – more often than not we are aghast at the prices that are paid. It’s not unusual for me to buy a work of art and hold on to it until I find the right buyer. It’s not like buying something that will go off. I will buy and take the risk and hold on to things if I think they will eventually appreciate.

AAC: What are your clients most interested in acquiring at the moment?
RG: I handle a broad spectrum of art – ranging from the 1880s to contemporary Australian works. My clients are equally broadly interested. I have two who have large, encyclopaedic collections, and others who are very focused on specific artists and periods. One of them has bought 62 Charles Blackmans from me over the years.

AAC: How much of your business is made up of contemporary art?
RG: I tend not to handle a lot of contemporary art. I stick with the artists I like – David Larwill, Criss Canning, Linde Ivimey, Cherry Hood, Peter Booth and Howard Arkley are the main ones.

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