“Perhaps be slightly wary of using your paddle as a fan this evening,” cautions Sotheby’s Australia auctioneer Martin Gallon.
The illustrious auction house has taken over the Elston Room in Redfern’s Carriageworks to preside over The Art of Divorce, Russell Crowe’s bizarre and well-publicised auction to finance the dissolution of his marriage to Danielle Spencer.
On a hot and muggy Sydney Saturday evening, the auction staff somehow keep themselves from sweating through their tuxedos, but the climate is not the only thing that doesn’t quite match the host’s unflappable primness. As tables of immaculately dressed assistants to the seriously rich prepare to take phone and internet bids, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts hits warble through the room’s speakers.
“I’d put it in the driveway”, he deadpans. “Take it down to Roads and Maritime, get it registered.”
Things kick off with a series of collectibles from Crowe’s movies. Lot 1, a shirt and other items from the 1991 movie Proof, sells for an internet bid of $650. Things escalate quickly. The next item, the brown Doc Marten boots from 1992 film Romper Stomper, net $10,000. The buyer? National Museum of Australia, which also hands over $2,000 for Crowe’s costume from 1993 movie The Silver Brumby.
But the first big-ticket item up for grabs is the famous Gladiator breastplate. Starting at $20,000, the asking price doubles in seconds. Triples. Quadruples. “Someone’s keen!” Gallon enthuses.
Eventually the bidding tops out at $125,000, sparking a small squall of Gladiator fever. The breastplate’s matching wrist cuffs go for $32,000. The wooden sword gets $20,000. The metal one, $70,000. Owen, in black jeans and a crisp blue formal shirt, takes the chariot home for $65,000. “Something for the man cave,” he grins.
His impeccable Oxbridge accent echoing off the stained factory walls, Gallon is delightfully chipper, as only someone who gets paid to coax rich people out of their money could be. When the first full-size, unsettlingly lifelike Gladiator prop horse comes up on screen behind him, Gallon does a double-take. “Look at that! Something for everyone!”
From nowhere, a woman takes the stage and begins to sing Happy Birthday. Besides being his erstwhile wedding anniversary, Crowe has scheduled The Art of Divorce on his own 54th birthday, perhaps to gift himself an almighty pile of money. A mildly befuddled audience joins in the “hip hip hoorays” at her urgings, which seem odd on behalf of someone who is not here.
Only, he is. Bearded and beaming, Crowe bounces onstage to talk up Lot 31, an 1890 Milanese violin crafted by master luthier Leandro Bisiach Sr and used in the 2003 drama Master and Commander. “This is just a suggestion,” Crowe says, but the buyer “might want to lend it to a young musician so it carries on and starts to play in the concert halls around the world”. Gesturing to a woman in a cocktail dress below him, he suggests: “This young lady, standing right here, may be the young musician that you may want to give the violin to.”
Bridget O’Donnell, a member of the Australian Youth Orchestra, takes the stage to play two pieces from Master and Commander, accompanied on the cello by Hanna Oblikov. As you would hope from a violin that ends up going for $135,000, it sounds pretty bloody nice.
Besides the Gladiator paraphernalia, many of Crowe’s movie costumes are in high demand. His Royal Navy dress blues from Master and Commander goes for $115,000. The blue sleeveless vest he wore as Javert in Les Miserables fetches $12,000. The primeval leather jockstrap from Cinderella Man was expected to go for between $500 and $600, but a handful of disquietingly eager phone bidders push it up to $7,000.
As the crowd thins down to the serious bidders, things begin to get truly baroque. The mosasaur skull Russell picked up from Leonardo DiCaprio via the late Cretaceous period, fetches $65,000. A 17th century Flemish tapestry the size of a billboard goes for $24,000, presumably to adorn someone’s private aircraft hangar. A pair of 18th century duelling pistols go for $26,000 and a bronze warship cannon sells straight after for $20,000.
But it’s Crowe’s stunning collection of Australian artwork that fetches the highest prices. The aficionados checking out the Sydney Biennale at the other end of the complex would have nosebleeds if they realised what they were missing out on. The first artwork to go under the hammer, the exquisite still life Bush Flowers by Margaret Olley, takes $70,000. Sidney Nolan’s Abundance does one better, fetching $100,000. Brett Whiteley’s Moreton Bay Fig and Palms goes for $190,000; Charles Blackman’s The Suitor for $360,000. The selling prices don’t include the 22% tax Sotheby’s places on each item.
The night ends, more than five hours after it started, with a brisk trade in jewellery and no fewer than 28 watches. The mysterious potentates on the other end of the phone bids go berserk. As the bids creep north of $10,000, solemn-looking men in the audience duel with their paddles. An Armani watch that doesn’t work sells for $1,100. A Rolex that does nets $40,000.
In a late-night Tweet after everyone’s gone home, Crowe tallies up his winnings. “$3.7m at the coal face and around $350k of conversations ongoing,” he says. “Not a bad hourly rate for a 5 hour shift.”