Auction of major John Olsen painting fetches $312,500

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The first major work by John Olsen to be auctioned since the artist's death has been sold at the bottom end of expectations.

Olsen's Life on the Edge of the Pond went under the hammer for $250,000 with a 25 per cent buyer's premium taking the price to $312,500.

Olsen died in April aged 95.

"Remarkable painter, remarkable piece," the auctioneer encouraged bidders for the 2m by 2m painting at the Smith and Singer auction in Sydney on Tuesday.

Not many works by the artist had sold for more than $300,000 according to Geoffrey Smith from the auction house.

"It's a very successful and pleasing result," he told AAP.

A smaller watercolour and pastel work by Olsen featuring his classic frogs went well beyond the estimate to fetch $50,000 not including premium.

Works by several big names in the Australian art world missed their asking price, including Jeffrey Smart, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, William Dobell, Arthur Streeton, John Perceval and Fred Williams.

But Mr Smith said the auction house was already receiving enquiries about artworks that had not sold.

"For us the auction is like the opening night of an exhibition, many things obviously transact at the auction, but then there's the days that follow," he said.

Minutes after the Olsen went under the hammer, Brett Whiteley's oil The Paddock - Early Morning 1979, expected to fetch $2-3 million, passed in with a bid of $1.9 million.

The big result was for Victorian artist Criss Canning, whose 2003 work Waratah and Studio Detail more than doubled the estimate to go under the hammer for $80,000, with the premium taking the price to $100,000.

"That is a new world auction record for Criss Canning, so there were some very exciting moments tonight," Mr Smith said.

While one Arthur Boyd passed in, another titled On the Banks of the Shoalhaven went for $680,000 with the buyer's premium taking the price to $850,000 well over the estimate of of $300-$400,000.

The final lot for the night, an offset lithograph by Whiteley titled The Cat doubled the top end of the price range to go under the hammer for $50,000.

Abstract painter Michael Johnson's Trio 1990 exceeded expectations, as did two watercolours by Albert Namatjira, and two small sculptures by Henry Moore.

Mr Smith said that while the auction house put the works forward, the public ultimately determined prices.

"It's a democratic process, everyone can be involved and that's why it's always exciting because you never quite know what's going to happen," he said.