Arts / Culture

Jess Blanch speaks with Gene Sherman on her first art purchase and the iconic Bonhams auction

gene sherman

After a life spent carefully collecting artworks from Australia and Asia Pacific's most cherished artists, philanthropist and patron of the arts Dr. Gene Sherman, along with her husband Brian, will part with 100 pieces in a staggering new auction. Spearheaded by Bonhams, the catalogue includes works from artists such as Petrina Hicks, Mike Parr, Imants Tiller and Ai Weiwei, all of whom Gene and Brian Sherman have fostered an intimate relationship with.

Having already gifted numerous large scale works of art to cultural institutions including MOMA, TATE Modern, Art Gallery of NSW and National Gallery of Australia, Dr. Sherman is editing her collection of some 900 works, with the intent of sharing them with a new generation. Just as they did with Lucio Galletto's covetable collection as he farewelled his Paddington restaurant, Lucio's, Bonhams will facilitate the Sherman 100 auction on Wednesday, May 11.

Ahead of Sherman 100, RUSSH editor-in-chief Jess Blanch spoke with Dr. Gene Sherman. Together they discuss the monumental auction, the art of buying art, Sherman's legacy, and the first piece the art collector fell in love with. Find their conversation, below.

sherman 100

Imants Tillers (born 1950)
Untitled (It was 8pm. Just imagine. The painting sees you, but you do not see it.)
synthetic polymer paint on nine canvasboards
each panel numbered sequentially with stencil verso: '39677-39685'
114.0 x 76.0cm (44 7/8 x 29 15/16in).

Do you remember the first piece that you personally fell in love with?

I think the very first piece Brian and I bought was a work called Femme au Marché (Women at the Market), by an Armenian artist living in Paris called Jansen. It was a line drawing, work on paper, with a slightly abstracted group of women at a market – bought from a gallery that my father frequented run by a Mr Hotz and his son Dennis. We bought that first piece together and hung it for years in our various homes.  Decades later, Brian and I were in Paris, staying at l’Hôtel, an intimate hotel, near l’Ecole des Beaux Arts (the fine arts school) – and from the window of our room we could look out on Parisian cobblestoned small streets. A little gallery across the road, simply called Jansen, was just visible. The following morning, we paid a visit, and in French I said to the attendant "you know, Jansen was the first artwork we acquired for our collection". He replied: c’est mon père ("that’s my father").

What is the motivation for the 100 auction? Why now?

I want to leave an orderly legacy for our children. We have been collecting for so many years Brian and I, 54 years, and we have collected in a very specific way. I need to put a framework around what I perceive to be the chaos of everyday life. I have had a fairly turbulent innings.

Firstly, I've moved country several times; I lost a child (had a stillborn before Emile);  I lost my mother, brother and then my father early. I built up a career only to see it disappear  as a result of forces beyond my control – and so this idea of collecting and piecing objects together, rather like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, is my way of creating order out of the somewhat chaotic elements that kept interfering in my life. Brian has Parkinson’s now. This would have been the time we could have travelled leisurely, rather than frantically for work.

This was the time when I thought we would flourish as a couple without so much pressure.

C'est la vie … In some ways, I have had greater challenges than many. However, when one thinks about the Ukrainians at present, one realises how extremely fortunate we all are. People have lost their homes, loved ones and lives.

At the end of the year, presenting the final SCCI: Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas Fashion and Architecture Hubs at London’s Design Museum (28 October through 6 November) I will bring to a close the active part of my career with, I hope, a flourish.

I am taking 40 creatives to London for this AU/UK Season of Culture ambitious project, supported as part of a combined Australian and British Government initiative.


How did you decide on what pieces to include in the auction?

Well, obviously, the artworks need to be covetable. The market is broadening all over the world. Remember, I ran a commercial gallery for 21 years, so I am very much in touch with the art marketplace. Not at the very top–end, but certainly at the midrange level. Since we have been in Australia, I focussed on artists from our country and the Asia Pacific: including China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Philippines. There was and still is plenty of scope.

Brian and I built the collection together – until he became ill, that is. Over the years, I steered him, and he helped me make final collecting choices.


Currently through SCCI and previously via SCAF: Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation you've offered a platform for so many, and the artists and creative practitioners that you're helping develop and giving opportunities to are unique…

Good artists are unique, simply because if you are a follower, or copier, then you can’t operate at the top echelons. Personally I am a pathway creator rather than follower. If one has sufficient finances, it is easy to follow trends. I believe many people end up loving the idea of certain artists as opposed to the work they produce.


With the art in your home, do you move it around a lot?

Not often. The task is too demanding a task – although, we tend to rehang rooms when we acquire new work. When selling work – say in the SHERMAN 100 Bonham’s auction – I reserve a small percentage, 25 per-cent or so, from sales which then goes back into acquisitions. Despite my current new editing goals, I can’t resist collecting.


What is the biggest shift that you are noticing for artists in the world today and Australia?

The new context that has developed in art creation and collection building (and not yet fully tried and tested) are the NFTs – art that only exists on screen. The provenance of the work is secure – owners know and understand the work’s history, and its rarity status is protected on a blockchain.

Explore the complete catalogue of the Sherman 100 auction online at Bonhams. The auction will take place at 5pm GMT+10 on Wednesday, 11 May, 2022.

The RUSSH editors share the art they love in their homes.

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