BNZ Art Collection: Artworks by Colin McCahon have sold for millions of dollars

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Part of the BNZ art collection will be auctioned at Webb’s on Sunday. RNZ/Felix Walton

Five works by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon have sold for millions of dollars this afternoon at the BNZ Art Collection – and concerns are still being raised about their sale.

Colin McCahon’s 1982 painting Is There Anything of which Man Can Say, Look, This Is New? set a new all-time record for a work of art auctioned in New Zealand when it sold for $2.39 million. It had an estimate of between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

His O Let Us Weep sold for $926,125.

But most of the paintings at this afternoon’s sale for the BNZ Art Collection – including McCahon’s Small Bush Covered Hillside, Kauri and Gray Sky, Red Earth Works – sold above their top estimate.

Brent Wong’s Town Boundary sold for $472,025, while Tony Fomison’s The Fugitive sold for $1.82 million – the estimate was $600,000-$900,000.

Among the BNZ collection of more than 200 artworks were pieces by some of the country’s most important artists, Rita Angus, Gordon Walters, Toss Woollaston, Gretchen Albrecht, Milan Mrkusich, Don Binney and Ralph Hotere.

Webb’s Auction Director of Art, Charles Ninow, previously said it was one of the most important auctions in New Zealand’s history.

Total sales in the first part of the auction exceeded $13.5 million.

“This is the largest corporate gathering New Zealand has ever seen,” said Ninow. “It contains many works of art that absolutely rival the finest works in the public collections of this country.”

Tony Fomison's fugitive (left) was sold for $1.82 million - his estimate was between $600,000 and $900,000.  RNZ/Felix Walton
Tony Fomison’s fugitive (left) was sold for $1.82 million – his estimate was between $600,000 and $900,000. RNZ/Felix Walton

However, there have been objections to auctioning such significant artworks to private buyers, with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark saying BNZ should not sell millions of dollars worth of art originally purchased when the bank was state-owned.

Te Papa’s director of marketing and communications, Kate Camp, said they acquired two paintings at the auction but welcomed the opportunity to bid on works before the auction.

The paintings acquired by Te Papa are Glenda at Tahakopa by Robin White, purchased for $406,300, and design by A. Lois White, purchased for $221,075.

She said BNZ informed her about the auction in advance, but said there was no way to buy outside of the auction process or receive items as a donation.

“Te Papa sees the value of having works in public collections and would always encourage collectors to think of public collections first when selling works,” Camp said.

Glenda at Tahakopa, by Robin White, purchased for $406,000 from Te Papa at the BNZ Art Collection auction.  Photo / Included.
Glenda at Tahakopa, by Robin White, purchased for $406,000 from Te Papa at the BNZ Art Collection auction. Photo / Included.

Courtney Johnston, executive director of Te Papa, said the National Museum always encourages corporate and private collectors to donate artworks to public collections when dissolving a collection.

“We encourage every collector to think about the legacy they are creating when they place works in public hands where they can be held in trust for future generations,” Johnston said.

“There is a limit to what public institutions in New Zealand can afford and as the market becomes more expensive, the public will depend more on the generosity and vision of collectors who choose to donate works.”

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has said BNZ cannot sell multimillion-dollar art that was originally purchased when the bank was still state-owned.

Today, the Auckland Art Gallery also claimed BNZ had dismissed its concerns about the sale of significant New Zealand artwork.

Gallery director Kirsten Lacy said the artworks were purchased when the BNZ was state-owned but transferred when it was privatised.

She thought they should be visible to all.

“There is a special care taken with a corporate collection like this to reflect the national interest and the bank is not interested in having a dialogue about what that means in relation to New Zealand’s cultural assets.”

BNZ is not interested in speaking to her about the collection, Lacy said, but the bank said it has no formal requests from galleries.

Cliff Joiner, general manager of corporate affairs at BNZ, said the future of the BNZ Art Collection had been carefully considered by the board over a two-year period.

The company decided the best way to continue supporting the legacy of the art collection was to give the privilege of caring for the works to others and support the communities through the proceeds, he said.

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