They had travelled from all over – some from thousands of kilometres away – with their chequebooks and credit cards ready. For those who couldn’t be there, they had brokers representing them, mobile phones glued to their ears, keeping the client updated. Eleven minutes later 29 pieces of outstanding artworks had changed hands at a cost of $323,000. So, where were we? Sotheby’s in New York perhaps? Wrong. Christie’s in London? Afraid not. Some trendy art warehouse in Paris? No. We were in … wait for it … Green Street, Morpeth. At the Morpeth Art Gallery in fact. And here’s the thing: most people in the Hunter have no idea just how highly regarded Trevor Richards’ upstairs art gallery is, tucked away at the back of the historic Campbell’s Store.
Richards is reluctant to shoot his mouth off – “ït’s not for me to say”, he says – but it’s one of the finest galleries in Australia. Many good judges would say the finest. Just as the cashed-up people who turned up for what was essentially a clearance sale last October would testify. The small, two-room gallery only has limited hanging space, and every now and then Richards needs to create some room. Hence, the auction. Before we go any further, let’s be perfectly clear on one thing: this is no exaggeration or local bias. Morpeth Gallery is that good. It is insured by Lloyds of London no less, has bars on the widows, 21 security cameras. Insurance premiums are… well, let’s just say you could buy a new car each year with what he pays. As for the artists themselves, they’re Australia’s finest, internationally renowned and for many, they only exhibit their work in Morpeth – although one or two are now also showing in New York as well. “These guys have won numerous international awards – major awards,” Richards says. “See that painting over there, that’s by John McCartin. He was named international artist of the year in 2011. “And only last Sunday I sold a painting of a koala by Stephen Jesic which International Art, a very highly respected American organisation, has just named the best painting in the world. That was judged against artworks from 63 countries – say, 30,000 paintings in all. “And Gordon Hanley, well, he’s probably the hottest property in Australian art today – one of the hottest in the world in fact – and I’m the only gallery in Australia that carries his work.” For Richards, he has come a long way since he first opened the gallery on the top floor of his store in 1991. In those days his artworks would cost a couple of hundred dollars, but things have certainly changed. The new gallery, which came after some long and drawn out argy-bargy with council, has coincided with a leap in the quality and cost of his artworks. Ironically, he started because he wanted to make art more accessible to the public. Something he still aims to achieve. So, does the fact that so many of his pieces now cost thousands of dollars fly in the face of his desire to make artwork more available to the average joe? “I take your point but I hope not,” he says. “My lay-by system helps with that.” Richards is happy to negotiate with the public on repayments. In general terms, if a buyer pays 10 per cent up front, they can take the artwork home and hang it, and pay off the rest in pre-agreed instalments - interest free. “My wife acknowledges that doing business this way we’re always going to have a mortgage,” he says with a chuckle. “I see art as an investment. It probably appreciates in value at between eight and 12 per cent a year. But unlike money in the bank, you can sit and look at what you have. It brings enjoyment … I know it does for me. “I walk around the gallery and see the works and can’t think of anything I’d rather do for a living.” On any given week Richards has to plough through letters from aspiring artists asking if their works can be hung at Morpeth. For them, it’s prestigious to have their works alongside some of the world’s finest. “I almost invariably knock them back,” Richards concedes. ”I have paintings out the back now that I can’t hang because I don’t have the room. I have 23, maybe 24 artists on my books, and they’re the best of the best, so while I’d like to help out these up and coming artists, my hands are tied.” So how does he keep up with all the budding talent around the country, and keep his finger on the pulse of modern Australian art? “Well, I’ve learnt a lot over 20-odd years,” he says. “But probably the best thing I do is pay for all my artists to come to Morpeth every March for a weekend. “I pay the airfares, accommodation and meals – it costs a pretty penny I can tell you – but it’s a fantastic weekend. I’m told I’m the only gallery that does it. I also invite a lot of my more serious buyers along so they can rub shoulders with them. “It’s a fantastic time, just seeing all these great artists of different genres together, talking what they love. They enjoy it and so do I. “But in answer to your question, I listen to what they say and they invariably mention names of emerging artists, which I follow up. That helps me stay up to date with what’s happening. If they can’t spot talent, then who can?” But enough of this chat. I ask Richards to take me through his two rooms, and point out a few of the works. We start in the corner where there are three original works from d’Arcy W Doyle. If the name doesn’t ring a bell the paintings would – he’s the guy who paints pictures of kids playing cricket on dusty outback streets in front of weatherboard homes that have seen better days. So Trevor, tell me about him. “It is said that one home in four has a d’Arcy Doyle print. I had a woman in here one day who bought one of his works for $50,000 because she said it matched the curtains,” Richards says, bursting out in laughter. “Can you believe that? The curtains probably cost $1000.” He shakes his head in amazement as we stroll along. Next up we stop in front of a number of paintings of boats on a tranquil sea, with the sunlight reflecting off the water. “That’s Paul Garling. He’s a fifth generation marine artist, and he’s going to be Australia’s next great one. I’ve got works from him ranging from $700 to about $2500.” Next up a bush scene, typical Australia, with rays of light penetrating the tree canopy. “Kevin Best, he’s passed away now but is renowned for those rays of light in his artworks. “And those cows grazing under trees over there, they’re typical John McCartin. He’s one of the best artists in Australia, full stop, and very highly regarded internationally. Highly sought after. If you’re looking to make money, his work is sure to increase in value. It has gone up significantly in price every year for the last 10 years.” A ballpark figure: $2.55 a square centimetre. So why is he hanging pretty much exclusively in Morpeth (he has his own shop in the Barossa Valley too). “He says I started him off at Morpeth, and he’s stayed loyal to me,” Richard says, matter-of-fact. In the next room he speaks with equal enthusiasm about William T Cooper’s works – “the most repected wildlife artist in the world today”. The image we’re standing in front of is a huge painting, 150cm by 98cm of a handful of galahs, named Galah Gathering. The price is a jaw dropping $35,000. “Bill Cooper is renowned for the accuracy of his work, the intricate detail,” Richards explains. “Every feather will be perfect in its detail. It’s incredibly painstaking work. David Attenborough has actually made a documentary about Bill.” And finally, the big question: among all these great talents, who’s your artist of the moment? “Gordon Hanley,” he says, without hesitation. “He practises what is known as metalpoint art. It involved using pure gold or silver in a pencil, and drawing on pre-prepared paper. “When the graphite pencil came in, the skill died off for hundreds of years. Obviously the pencil was easier to use and when you made a mistake, you could erase it and draw over it. With metalpoint if you made a mistake, you started again. “And now Gordon Hanley, a Brisbane man, has worked out how it was done and reinvented it. His work is so superb that he has been named a Living Master – the only one in the world - by the prestigious US Art Renewal Centre. “Galleries all over the world want his work, but he only exhibits in Morpeth and one of New York’s most exclusive galleries.” The price? Again, it depends on the size of the work, but $20,000 is pretty common. So do they sell? “Of course, but one of the things I’ve learned is if the man writes the cheque, it’s the woman who picks the painting.” After all, you never know what colour those curtains might be.
Gordon Hanley will hold a special exhibition at Morpeth Gallery this weekend October 11-12, with 24 works still for sale. The opening weekend of his exhibition sold pieces valued at more than $150,000 in total.