Aucklander Anne Coney farewells a fabulous art collection 40 years in the making

Photography by Samuel Hartnett

After almost 40 years of enthusiastically buying art, Anne Coney is selling her fabulous collection.

“I’m not sick or anything – I’m not dying.” Anne Coney would like to be very clear that the auction of her fabulous art collection is not some sort of mad, mortality-induced decluttering, but the beginning of a new chapter.
We’re sitting in the living room of her Parnell home, an abode as cheerfully exuberant as its owner: the walls in the living room sport wide yellow-and-white stripes, while busy floral wallpaper in the dining room engulfs a fruity checkerboard table and hand-painted chairs once owned by the British entertainer Michael Barrymore (she bought them at an auction). The floors are a shiny bubblegum pink, a couple of shades lighter than the stripes in the back of her hair.

I’ve heard Anne is in her 70s, and ask if she’d confirm her age. “Oh God no, certainly not!” she says. “I couldn’t bear it. I don’t think age or sex are relevant, do you?”

Hers is not a capital-C art collection, the type assembled by people self-consciously acquiring trophy works by Very Important Artists. Instead, her eye is drawn to colour and shape. She has always bought work by artists who are alive, because she likes the idea of her purchases supporting creative folk. As a result, her collection (although she would prefer to avoid that word – “they’re just works I’ve enjoyed”) is less encyclopedic, more idiosyncratic: a boisterous creative family that includes some of the most interesting artists of the past 40 years. 

Her life in art started young. She grew up in Auckland – her parents owned a manufacturing business – and remembers watching her mother pursue her passion for historical watercolours by buying works at auctions.

“I got used to living with pictures, I guess,” she says.

But her own tastes turned out to be far more contemporary. After leaving school, she took a job in the workroom of the high-toned fashion emporium El Jay, and enjoyed spending lunchtimes visiting galleries like John Leech and Denis Cohn. It was Cohn who lent her advice that became a touchstone for her subsequent adventures in art. “Buy the toughest work you think you can manage,” he told her. Did she purchase anything in those days?

“No! I was getting two pounds a week and I’d never heard of layby.”

The first piece she bought, in fact, was much later, when she was working “in the fishbowl on the corner of Queen Street and Customs” as a ticketing agent for British Airways in the early 1980s. It was a painting by Jeffrey Harris that depicts a young Polish girl who has been frightened by the Nazis. She went on to hone her eye by working with gallerist Peter Webb (who taught her the art of an arresting arrangement) and at Gow Langsford, adding to her collection as her taste and confidence evolved.

She has great finesse at displaying things. The aforementioned Jeffrey Harris painting hangs with a work by Michael Illingworth over a vivid green Fornasetti cabinet and glass pieces by Wendy Fairclough. There are yellow and green egg-shaped orbs (with accompanying little white mice) by Seung Yul Oh on the floors; one of Michael Parekowhai’s famous Ten Guitars sits on a table. Judy Millar’s vivid paint swirls jostle with Andrew McLeod’s mutated classicism in the hall, while a portrait of a young boy by Sam Mitchell with macabre little illustrations on his face stares across the dining room.

“He looks just the most angelic child, but the thoughts in his head are far from it,” she says approvingly.

Given her obvious enjoyment of all these pieces, why has she decided to sell them? She says she wanted to sell the works “in a way that is respectful” of the artists and their dealers; a single-collection auction does that. She’d also like to pursue other artistic interests while she can.

“I have no art history background at all,” she says, “but while I’ve got a bit of go in me I’d like to collect some new work, and some old favourites – I’ve become interested in video works and photographs.”

Onwards, then. But despite this, the departure of the rich parade of artworks on her walls will be a wrench. She’s leaving town for a few days to avoid witnessing them being moved out of her home. Her place might feel bereft without them, but she is sanguine about her decision. 

“You come into the world with nothing and you leave with nothing,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have lived with things I think are beautiful. I just feel the time is right.”

Hear Paperboy editor Jeremy Hansen in conversation with Anne Coney at 3pm, Sun 2 July at Art+Object, 3 Abbey St, Newton. Her collection will be auctioned there on Thu 6 July.