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George Brandis just spent $134,200 on this paperweight

Dame Nellie Melba’s 1922 gold paperweight. Photo: Sothebys

Australians are mad for Melba, if the results of an auction of her estate this week is anything to go by.

Paintings by Margaret Preston, Arthur Streeton and Elioth Gruner were among 162 items from the Dame Nellie Melba collection, which went under the hammer at Sotheby’s Australia in Melbourne on Tuesday. The auction was expected to raise up to $750,000. The final figure was just shy of $2 million.

A century old diamond-set Cartier desk clock with an estimated price of $20,000-25,000 sold for nearly 10 times that amount at $244,000. A Cartier evening clutch bag worth up to $3,000 went for a staggering $36,000, while Streeton’s 1903 painting, The Windsor Damsel, Fishing, had an estimate of $40,000-50,000. It went for $189,100.

And Australian taxpayers stumped up $134,200 for a 1922 gold paperweight bristling with Australiana, given to the diva as thank-you buy the citizens of Geelong.

Arts minister George Brandis dipped into the government’s National Cultural Heritage Account to buy it for the Museum Victoria.

The estimate was $40,000-50,000, but Sotheby’s Australia CEO Geoffrey Smith reckons the nation got a bargain.

“It’s an incredibly unique object and incredibly important for Australia. It’s the most wonderful item of Australian craftsmanship and iconography, with an extraordinary history,” he said.

The paperweight was made by Victorian company Hammerton & Sons and presented to Dame Nellie by the people of Geelong as a thank you for her performance at a charity fundraiser to build a local hospital.

Smith admitted that when it first arrived at the auction house, it was listed as a sculpture until research revealed a 93-year-old story in the local paper all about the work, right down to the fact that the trees were bases on gums by the Barwon River. There’s a nightingale on it as songbird, as well as a kookaburra.

Bidding was spirited during the auction, with around 400 people there, plus a number of international bidders on the phones. Some works were sold overseas. The Australian government has legislation to prevent significant items of national history from disappearing offshore.

Sotheby’s had no idea in the museum’s interest in the paperweight.

As for the prices, he said the initial estimates were based on sales of similar works and the results demonstrated Melba’s power.

“It is impossible to determine the true value of extraordinary and impeccable provenance,” he said. “Dame Nellie Melba has stood the test of time. She is truly ordained into our national psyche.”

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