Monday, June 28, 2010

"Owsten Collection" Auction Report

The following report (and these photos!) just in from my friend Lisa O'Sullivan, who is based in Australia and who kindly offered to spy on the auctioning off of the Owsten collection, an amazing collection of naturalia, decorative arts and curiosities amassed by millionaire Warren Anderson and his now estranged wife. The auction took place last Friday and Saturday in Sydney, Australia and here is what Lisa had to say about the spectacle:
In the end, there were no last-minute invasions from the previous owner of the collection, who had threatened to disrupt the sale. He argued that the auction house Bonhams had seriously undervalued his collection. Looking at some of the final auction prices, he may have had a point. Many pieces went significantly over reserve, especially the taxidermy which had been, often ridiculously*, under valued (*she says, with zero authority, but all the bitterness of a taxidermy enthusiast of limited means - the birds I liked having a reserve of A$400 - $600 but selling at A$6,600 (US$5,768), over 10 times that).

For the pre-auction viewing, the collection was displayed in the overseas ferry terminal at Circular Quay, opposite the Sydney Opera house. This was a good thing, because every so often, my retinas needed a rest, and I could step out for some air and gaze at the harbour for a while (calm, washed out blues, very soothing to the eyes). When we say ferry terminal, this is a cavernous space, designed to deal with the massive cruise ships that descend on Sydney. Despite the scale, it felt absolutely jam-packed with over 1,300 objects, many of them made up into room dioramas, like a version of IKEA, designed for, as my friend Felix said, someone looking to furnish an entire Carpathian Castle all at once.

The room was edged with Japanese suits of armour, standing to attention between cabinets and chests of drawers, all with their obligatory taxidermy on top. Looking around, every available surface seemed to be covered with cases. The taxidermy was very varied, some amazing pieces, next to some very dodgy dioramas, and examples in a bad state of repair. Among the saddest were the little birds with stuffing coming out of their eye sockets where fake eyeballs had fallen out.

Add to this, job lots of boomerangs (I heard one staff member complaining to another that his life had shrunk to a point where it was purely dedicated to counting boomerangs in and out of boxes), art nouveau sculptures jostling with ethnographic masks, castle-scaled wooden furniture and a seemingly endless array of trophy heads.

Rumour had it the interest in the rhinoceros horns and heads was fuelled by their medicinal potential (rhino horn is a traditional Chinese remedy against fever). As trade in these horns is now banned, antique examples are the only legal means of procuring them. In any case, a single horn sold for A$90,000 (US$78,655).

For me the most bizarre heads were the wombat trophies. I always understood the ‘heads on a wall’ to gesture towards the prowess of the hunter (all aspects of unfair advantage aside). Despite my best efforts, it’s hard to picture a ‘man v beast’ hunting scenario that involves wombats (also known as the animals most likely to cause a danger to humans as trip hazards in the dark) and a fight to the death any hunter could be proud of...

And the monkey and cat barbershop? A$24,000 (US$20,975) - A$9,000 over reserve. Time to set up a Morbid Anatomy acquisition fund so we can be ready next time?

Addendum: At the end of the day, the entire Owsten Collection sold for A$12 million - double the auction houses estimate, but still under the A$20 million the owner claimed.

Thanks so much, Lisa, for this awesome report and images! So wish I could have been there myself! It looks (and sounds) even more epic than I had expected! To find out more about the collection and to see more images, you can visit this recent pre-auction post.

All images are from Lisa's visit to the auction pre-sale. You can see the entire set of images (well worth your while!) by clicking here.


Paul Baxendale said...

Very Interesting! It is very gratifying to get such a speedy and in-depth report on the outcome of the auction!

~Rowan said...

Great post and photos, wish I could have been there, but the trek from Melbourne seemed a bit extreme! I registered to bid, but was also blown away by the other bidders. I guess I'll have to find another monkey skeleton in a chair with case!

Author said...

Actually it is common practice for auction houses to estimate low in an effort to create excitement and to increase the number of hopeful bidders. Things did sell well - within their expected ranges and some great pieces sold very well. What a fun collection of taxidermy and other natural history.