THE end of 2006 sees the $160m Australian art and antiques auction market in a state of flux again. Chris Deutscher, one of the two main partners in the Menzies group, has announced his departure from the company. He intends to set up a rival firm by the new year.

The news comes only nine months after Christie’s effectively pulled out of the Australasian market to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. Part of their reason for doing so was that the Australian market is fairly static, with most potential lying in simply grabbing a greater share.

With Chris Deutscher announcing a new launch in partnership with Damian Hackett – the man who had been expected to succeed him at Deutscher-Menzies – competition is likely to become far more intense, especially in the vibrant but purely domestic arena of Contemporary Australian art.

Sotheby’s are still seen as the people to beat, but Bonhams and Goodman have been raising their game. As Christie’s announced their withdrawal, Tim Goodman overhauled his sales programme and announced that his firm would be expanding their operations.

In Melbourne alone – seen as the centre for Contemporary and Modern art in Australia – there are Joel Fine Art, the Menzies group themselves, and a large number of smaller operators such as Mossgreen, run by former Sotheby’s Australasia chief Paul Sumner, who is currently touring Europe promoting a major Asian Art collection for sale in February. He runs an art gallery alongside his auction operation and can accept collections for sale via both outlets. It’s a policy that allows them to offer more versatile customer service as well as providing them with additional ways of making money. Chris Deutscher appears to be opting for a similar strategy.

Deutscher-Hackett, as the new firm will be known, will operate out of Melbourne and Sydney and are expected to hold their first sale by April. Meanwhile, Lawson-Menzies, the Sydney-based arm of the Menzies auction group, will build their presence in Melbourne.

By Ivan Macquisten