Collection a snapshot of NZ art history

They say a picture is worth 1000 words, but the stories art collector Warwick Brown could tell about each of the paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures in his 500-plus piece family collection would run to far more.

There's the time in 1978 when Brown bought a Tony Fomison painting thus saving the artist from eviction; the Philip Trusttum abstract he got as a present for wife, Kitty, and didn't realise was actually two figures until it was on the wall; the Colin McCahons the couple picked up at the artist's first shows.

A keen painter himself, he and Kitty started collecting art in the mid-1960s and, he says, never paid more than about $300 - $400 for work by the likes of McCahon, Bill Hammond, Dick Frizzell, Pat Hanly, Nigel Brown, Sarah Hughes, Sir Tosswill Woollaston, Mary McIntyre, Ian Scott and Richard Killeen (among many others).

Now the collection is expected to fetch $3 million to $4 million when it goes to auction at Mossgreen-Webb's in May. But before the auction, Brown has put a selection of work on display at Northart Gallery in the Northcote Shopping Centre.

Milling, oil on stretched canvas 1987 by Dick Frizzell.

Milling, oil on stretched canvas 1987 by Dick Frizzell.

A long-time supporter of the art space, he has given talks, curated shows, lent work, judged art awards and held his own exhibitions there. Family Reunion: Selected works from the Warwick and Kitty Brown Collection includes 32 paintings from early acquisitions to more recent purchases from 1970 onward, the Browns had so much art it couldn't be housed in one place - and that was after they built a specially-designed gallery in the back garden.

"The solution was to distribute the works around, to my children, to law offices, to the Auckland High Court Judges' Chambers and two separate storage facilities. These works [at Northart] have never before all 'met each other' in one place hence the title of the exhibition."

Kitty died last year, 11 days short of the couple's golden wedding anniversary, so while Brown, an author, commentator and artist, still gets excited by art collecting, he's decided it's time to sell most of their prized works.

Lucifer Evil Flower, oil on jute hessian on board, 1979-19980 by Tony Fomison.

Lucifer Evil Flower, oil on jute hessian on board, 1979-19980 by Tony Fomison.

He admits parting with each and every one will be painful, but says he'd like others to have the opportunity to add to their own collections. He also wants to display some of his own paintings.

Brown sees the auction, called The Warwick and Kitty Brown Collection, as a commemoration of the couple's marriage and their shared joy in collecting art. He says a catalogue, produced to accompany the auction, will share their story plus a few behind some of their favourite works.

A lively raconteur, he shares a few of those stories at Northart on Sunday from 2pm. He'll take visitors on a walk through the collection - and, by extension, contemporary New Zealand art history - as he reveals some of the details behind the paintings.

Once Family Reunion ends on March 12, the paintings will be returned to Mossgreen-Webb's where photographing and cataloguing continues. Brown says he's looking forward to seeing the art in one place.

ocks In The Sky series 2 no4 Rai by Colin McCahon on show at Northart.

Rocks In The Sky series 2 no4 Rai by Colin McCahon on show at Northart.

"I suppose it's a slight ego trip; I can stand back and think, 'look at what we managed to collect!' But I don't think I'll be able to kick the habit, I will continue to collect work by new and emerging artists."

On its website, auction house Mossgreen Webb's states many of the works are regarded as modern masterpieces.

"The Warwick & Kitty Brown Collection was formed through a remarkably creative and productive period from which emerged a new generation of artists, dealers and intellectuals. Warwick's involvement in Auckland's art scene through this period stimulated his interest in art and, ultimately, his vocation as an evangelist for New Zealand contemporary art."

• The sale is on May 17 and 18 with viewing in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch earlier that month alongside a public programme of special events.

Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor.