Among the thousands of works the late Sydney art dealer Ray Hughes collected during his lifetime were a couple of Gordon’s gin bottles.
Last night, they sold for $6,600 each as part of the Hughes estate went up for auction.
The price is a reminder that it’s not what you are that matters, but who signed you.
The melted green bottles are two of 200 titled “Reclining Drunk” by the British art duo Gilbert & George.
The pair exhibited the collection in London 1973, inscribing each bottle with their initials, and the title. Gin had become a central part of their work. Among the Tate Modern collection is a 12 minute film of Gilbert & George sitting together sipping gin and tonics in a London terrace, getting drunk while the music of Elgar and Grieg plays and they say repeatedly “Gordon’s gin makes us very, very drunk”.
So there’s a reasonable chance that some of the gin bottles used in “Reclining Drunk” were personally drained by the artists.
Like much of the work by the pair, there was a satirical element to the sculptures.
In an interview with contemporary Gordon Burn, George explained: “The whole art world, they get drunk all the time. It’s amazing. We think it’s very honest of us to realise it can be a subject. You get really smashed and the next day you paint a beautiful picture, pretty stripes or something, and then you get drunk again, and it’s absolutely nothing to do with your way of life, really.”
Ray Hughes’ son, Evan, recalls his parents visiting Gilbert and George in their London studio in the early 1980s and thinks his father may have acquired them then.
“We all met again at the Venice Biennale they exhibited at [in 2005] and I remember dad bantering with them about them,” he said.
There’s another aspect that would have appealed to Hughes, a raconteur and bon vivant with a love of red wine and cigarettes – the works were designed to be ash trays, albeit expensive ones.
And while the art dealer loved to hold long Thursday lunches at his Surry Hills art gallery with an eclectic mix of artists, writers, actors, madmen and more, the sculptures weren’t put to practical use on those occasions.
Hughes died late last year, aged 72. More than 200 works went under the hammer last night and the two “Reclining Drunks” bottles sold for $6,600 (inc buyer’s premium) each on estimates of $2,000-$3,000.
Even then the buyers got a bargain: when another of the bottles came up for sale at Christie’s eight years ago, it sold for £4,375 ($7,900).
And of course the technique of melting bottles for another use, such as serving plates, has since been adopted by restaurants and designers.
In more that 50 years of collecting, as well as dealing in art, Hughes collected several thousand works. So the two-day auction of around 550 items is just a snapshot of his tastes. They were broad, roaming from Oceania tribal art, to emerging Australian artists from when his career began in Brisbane in the 1960s (works by the famed art critic Robert Hughes are up for sale tonight), African paintings, sculpture and folk art, German expressionist prints, and later Chinese contemporary works that demonstrated he was a man ahead of his time.
Evan Hughes recalls one adventure with his father, buying Anatolian rugs in Istanbul “as I battled the onset of dysentery and he complained about not being able to find a bloody drink”.
“It has been tremendously emotional but also immensely fun to put together this collection for sale from dad’s estate,” Hughes said ahead of the auction.
In the meantime he’s busy choosing works to gift to the Queensland Art Gallery, while many of his father’s favourite drawings will go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, an institution once lectured by the former director of the Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, on how they should pay more attention to Ray’s eye for contemporary art.
The remaining 350 works in Ray Hughes: A life with Art, go under the hammer in Sydney tonight.
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