Rex Irwin Art Dealer: Market Matters - Art Collector

Issue 30 October-December 2004

Rex Irwin has been dealing in works by important australian and international artists from his first floor rooms in woollahra, sydney since 1976. Irwin’s business is built around a stable of respected, mostly mid-career local artists, and a trade in works by some of the world’s most famous modernists from Picasso, Hockney, Freud and Auerbach to Australian icons like Fred Williams and John Brack. Never lost for an opinion, Irwin is well placed to comment on the changes and trends that pervade Australia’s dynamic market for fine art. He spoke to Michael Hutak.

AAC: Have you had a high turnover of clients over the years?
Rex Irwin: Clients have a rhythm; you might have a QC, who’s been earning millions, who finally becomes a judge, drops back to earning $150,000 and stops collecting. There’s lots of new flashy money and like everyone else we need to get some of that, but we’re not as good at getting it as some others. I’m walking slowly after them, [while others are] in a tank running them down.
AAC: Is this new money driving a booming art market, or is it just attracted to it?
RI: New money is always attracted into art when the economy is performing well. But the difference between today and the last boom in the late 1980s was that back then people were borrowing to buy assets. Today people are spending their own money, which means the market is built on genuine wealth and can’t really collapse today, like it did then. But the truth of the matter is the market isn’t booming anyway. Just because you see seven pictures by Smart, Boyd or Whiteley get high prices at auction, doesn’t mean there’s a boom, it just means that seven pictures achieved high prices. The market is meanwhile happily plodding along with that great bulk of collectors who buy something here, then buy something there. It’s those happy plodders who’ve kept us going through the dark years, and they were dark.
AAC: How has the rise in the auction trade affected your business?
RI: I have nothing to do with auctions. I neither buy nor sell at them. I would make two bids at auction per year, but only on behalf of a client. However I don’t believe the dealers should feel threatened by the auction houses. For every painting where the hammer falls $500k, there is an underbidder walking the streets the next day with $480k to spend.
AAC: Is there too much talk about the market today? Have we lost sight of the art?
RI: You can’t have too much talk about the market. I think it’s legitimate and necessary and inevitable, but there is too much talk today about money. Money is not the be-all-and-end-all. In the end we’re about bringing people into contact with that intangible quality that comes with the great work of art. Otherwise we might as well be selling pork-belly futures. And when all is said and done, what we are selling is our expertise and judgment of what a picture is worth. That’s why our regular collectors don’t bargain, whereas new clients try to bargain all the time.
AAC: What’s your view of the growth in art purchased through DIY super funds?
RI: I think the trend is very good because where a private person once might have spent $10k per annum on art; they can now spend $30k to $40k, as long as one gets proper advice in setting it up. I don’t believe these proposed pooled art funds are a particularly good idea. I’m reminded of the British Railways Pension Fund which in the 60s and 70s bought a huge array of objects – furniture, Jewellery, porcelain as well as old masters and fine art. After 20 years it had still made only one per cent more or less than blue chip stocks. I don’t think (the art funds) will wash. There appear to be too many fees off the top and your little picture needs to make 50 to 60 per cent on resale for you to see an overall return. I understand these funds are not actually for people who want to collect art or build a collection but are aimed strictly at the general investor who probably does not know much about art or even like it – so they might as well invest in any other field, in my opinion.
AAC: Do you deal with many such investors?
RI: We are not investment advisers, we are art dealers, but I do have people, usually young people, who come into the gallery with a wad of money wanting to invest. I say to them: ‘I will be happy to invest this for you as long as you do exactly as I say. If you want to chop and change and buy and sell you’re on your own.’ We don’t deal much with corporations, which mostly are selling at the moment. But the point of running an art gallery is to put artworks on walls so that people might see and appreciate them. We showed a first edition of Goya’s Disasters of War and we had literally thousands come through. More than 70 per cent of the people who come through the gallery are there just to look and that’s a major part of what we do.
AAC: What about managing your artists? How do you approach that?
RI: Some artists need managing, some don’t. All artists need nannying; they need their paints bought and their bottoms wiped occasionally. We are very active in promoting our artists. We’ve just assisted Gwyn Hanssen Pigott mount a show at the Tate St Ives in Cornwall U.K..
AAC: Tell us about dealing in the market for Freud prints.
RI: We are one of only two galleries in the world supplied by Lucian Freud’s sole agent (Acquavella Galleries Inc in New York) with newly published etchings (the other being Marlborough Fine Art in London). We’ve had great success in selling this artist’s graphic work for over two decades now. Twenty years ago I knew Freud’s London agent, James Kirkman, well, and we sold our first prints to clients here for just $1,000. Today they go for $75k. It’s been a considerable part of our business over the years. We’ve survived the peaks and troughs over the decades but in the last three years especially we’ve been becoming more and more successful.
AAC: To what do you attribute your success?
RI: I love to bring people into contact with beautiful things and I have a truly wonderful life. But really it all boils down to forging strong connections, and being good and middle class and paying your bills. Earlier this year I had dinner with David Hockney one night, dinner with Hockney and Lucian Freud the next night, and then lunch the next day with Frank Auerbach – all those sorts of personal friendships are wonderful and invigorating but it also helps the business. When they go back and see their dealers I have little doubt they might say: ‘I had dinner with Rex the other night. Make sure we save something for him.

Share this page: