Australia's most famous photo just sold for an insane price

Max Dupain’s 1937 photo Sunbaker, sold for $105,400. Photo: Max Dupain/Mossgreen.

Sunbaker by Max Dupain is one of Australia’s most famous images. Now it’s also one of the nation’s most expensive after a copy of the iconic 1937 photo sold for $105,400 (including buyer’s premium) at auction on Sunday. The figure is more than three times the estimate of $20,000-$30,000 and a new record for the artist.

It was bought by an undisclosed private collector.

A copy of Sunbaker from the Minter Ellison Collection was sold by Sotheby’s less than 12 months ago for $20,740 (including buyer’s premium).

Auction house Mossgreen sold all 492 works from the estate of the late Sydney photographer, smashing several records in the process, as the sale grossed $1.663 million. The provenance of the images may partly explain the premiums paid. The estate belonged to Dupain’s son Rex, also a photographer of renown. His father died in 1992, aged 81.

The National Gallery of Australia’s former curator of photography, Gael Newton, called the results “the most significant marker of the maturity of the appreciation of photographic arts in Australia”

Classic Dupain images, including Jean with Wire Mesh, 1938, fetched $37,200 on an estimate of $5,000-8,000, while Bondi, 1939, sold for $31,000 (est. $5-8,000) and 1952’s At Newport for $22,940 (est. $4-6000).

Mossgreen CEO Paul Sumner called the sale “a watershed moment for Australian photography at auction”. More than 400 registered bidders filled the room as part of the Melbourne-based auction house’s successful return to Sydney in the Woollahra building previously occupied by retired art dealer Rex Irwin.

Sumner said there was strong institutional buying as well as multiple new buyers who had never bought photography before.

“We are delighted that the auction was such a roaring success,” he said. “It was also the perfect start for our new Sydney premises, being the first auction that we have held there.”

Dupain gave Australia one of its greatest images, Sunbaker, nearly 80 years ago, quite by accident.

“We were camping down the south coast and one of my friends leapt out of the surf and slammed down onto the beach to have a sunbake – marvellous,” the late photographer said of the image.

The Dupain auction wasn’t Mossgreen’s only success on the weekend, also selling the original NSW 100 number plate sold for $241,500 yesterday to a Sydney collector.

It came onto the market for the first time in a century having been owned for 100 years by Dr Harold Norrie, after graduating from Sydney University in 1916. Norrie bought the car from a retiring judge who told him to “hang on to the numberplates, they’ll stand you in good stead as a young doctor”.

His family did.

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