With the licence due to expire, speculation recently turned to whether Mr Smith and Mr Singer would stay with the international brand.
The publicly listed global business returned to private hands in June in a $US3.7 billion ($5.4 billion) sale to French-Israeli cable magnate Patrick Drahi.
Sotheby’s International is a machine … What we’ve achieved here is very personal.
Geoffrey Smith, chair of Sotheby’s Australia
In an exclusive interview, Mr Smith and Mr Singer said the international sale had no impact on the decision to sever ties with the mothership.
“This business is so personal,” Mr Singer said. “We wanted it to carry our own name, because it’s about us and our relationships with our clients.”
The pair would not be drawn on whether any fee to license the name was a factor in the decision.
As the only Sotheby’s franchise operating anywhere in the world, Sotheby’s Australia has always been an oddity, but a very successful one; it is the market leader of sales of fine art and jewels in Australia.
Freshly minted Sotheby’s global chief executive Charles Stewart said the international brand had enjoyed a productive relationship with Mr Smith and Mr Singer over the past decade.
“We are delighted with their success in positioning the Sotheby’s brand as the clear market leader in Australia and wish them every success in their transition,” he said.
The core of Smith & Singer’s business will not change, although one immediate impact will be the end of combined antique furniture and decorative art sales.
“It’s been done at Sotheby’s historically, but [that] market has been volatile and in decline,” Mr Singer said.
Christie’s and Sotheby’s International were driven from Australian shores by the same volatility, and by the local market’s tiny scale. It’s not unusual for a single painting at a major London or New York auction to sell for $100 million – the combined annual turnover for all Australian art auction houses.
Locally the auction house has broken records for Australian art sales, including Arthur Boyd’s Drowned Bridegroom (1959), which sold for $1.95 million last year.
Also in 2018, Sotheby’s in New York sold Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) for an auction house record of $US157.2 million ($228 million).
“Sotheby’s International is a machine,” Mr Smith said. “What we’ve achieved here is very personal. We’re the people who greet you at the door. Our clients are our friends.”
Fine art and jewellery auctions will remain the cornerstone of the business, but Smith & Singer’s first project under the new banner will be an exhibition of work by visionary 1970s photographer Carol Jerrems.
“I want us to be the consummate art dealers,” Mr Smith said, “working on things that are important and transformative.”
Mr Smith’s public profile has been dominated by legal stoushes in recent years, including one with his art dealer ex-partner over a $23 million art collection and a dispute over the winding up of his tenure as Australian art curator at the National Gallery of Victoria.
With the couple’s second wedding anniversary looming, the unveiling of Smith & Singer marks a new phase. For the two of them, it’s more than just a business venture.
“So often, I had to hide my sexuality,” Mr Smith said. “The [marriage equality] plebiscite was a disgrace … We waited a long time to get married. To now own a business that carries our family name is very special.
“For a family that doesn’t have children, this is our legacy.”
“And our identity,” Mr Singer said.