Amazing art in Milford
Having never met auctioneer Dunbar Sloane in person (he was away on a buying trip when I visited), it’s tempting to try to conjure him up through his house. Of course, it’s not just his house. His wife Glenda lives here too. Even so, the decor must betray something of the man.
The 10-year-old, long, low house on a North Shore, Auckland beachfront was designed by friend and Sky Tower architect Gordon Moller. With its concrete floors, plaster walls, Oamaru stone pavers, zinc detailing, skylights and large windows, it could have been a minimalist’s dream. Except that the Sloane house is anything but. It’s crammed full of fascinating objets d’art and furniture.
The front door is guarded by a row of ceramic and metal frogs facing the house. On entering you gaze down a long soaring hallway of art, including New Zealand greats such as Hammond, Frizzell, Binney and Albrecht. Walk further and you’ll spy Maori artefacts, an antique Indonesian sculpture, a World War I soldier mannequin, a baby grand, faux flowers, a collection of old bowling balls and a host of candelabra just waiting for the next party.
In the television room with the Wanaka schist walls, three rows of viewing seats are provided near the big open fireplace. Clearly this is an exuberant, sociable house. And, you have to say, the owner must be pretty canny (there are some real jewels here).
Friends concur. Yes, that’s our Dunbar. If the name is familiar, it’s because he is the grandson of the founder of New Zealand’s oldest auction house. HQ is in Wellington although it operates throughout the country now. A great many more competitors have entered the market since it opened in 1918, but Dunbar Sloane still sells more items than any other auction house in New Zealand.
In 2000, Dunbar and Glenda followed business north to Auckland but the former Wellingtonians refuse to play favourites. They’re adamant – both Auckland and Wellington are wonderful cities.
Dunbar still spends plenty of time on the road (it wasn’t shyness or a reluctance to display his trim physique that led to his absence from the photographs). He’s doing what he has always loved doing, meeting folk with treasures to sell. “I don’t like buying outright,” he says by phone. “Auction houses always sell on behalf of the vendor. That way it’s all transparent.”
“He’s like a rocket,” adds Glenda. “He goes to work every day. He might start at 9 instead of 7, but he still comes home at 7pm.”
Nearing 70, Dunbar says he has no intention of retiring though the business is now run by his son Dunbar Junior – “Doing a lovely job he is too. I’m very proud of what he does.” Instead Dunbar Senior still travels the country looking for hidden treasures, though he no longer makes the big overseas trips to places like Liverpool and Dublin. There’s not the money in it there once was. “After World War II England was poor and prices were depressed. New Zealand was doing well at the time and I was one of the first people who went over there to find antiques. In those days you could get a grandfather clock for £12 and sell it here for $600. But you can’t do that now. It’s uneconomic by the time you buy it and ship the thing over.”
Glenda sometimes accompanies Dunbar on his scouting trips. She too loves the chase and the thrill of the auction room but she’s also happy to hold the fort at home and, fortunately for NZ House & Garden, not in the least camera-shy. As a former model who was once the face of Eveready batteries and Clairol Nice ’n Easy, this is hardly surprising. Glenda brushes away her achievements. “I would never make a model now. Too short. But in those days I did a lot of work for David Jones and Myers in Sydney.”
Photos of her past campaigns line the walls of the studio where she paints colourful, “naive” acrylics under the name Glenda Roberts. She says it’s just a hobby, but manages a stint in the studio at least four times a week.
But it was her fancy footwork on the ski field that caught Dunbar’s eye 32 years ago. Since then the couple have never looked back. Glenda gets on well with his four children, shares Dunbar’s love of antiques and artefacts and generally the couple have similar tastes. There was no argument about the design of the house for instance.
“I said I wanted to hear the waves on the rocks and I wanted a gallery for art. Gordon said the section was a bit narrow but we’ll build something like an ark,” said Dunbar. And it’s true that, if you look from above, the roof line is curved and bowed like Noah’s ark.
The couple bowled an old house on the property, lived in a purpose-built summer house at the bottom of the garden and waited two years for the house to be built. The end result was everything they’d wanted. “It’s a lovely home, a wonderful summer house, everything just flows,” says Dunbar.
Adds Glenda: “We have wonderful soirées here where everyone has to perform an item. The doors are usually open to the sea and the view of Rangitoto and the curtains just float in and out. The best thing about the house for me is the pool. I swim in it every day.”
It’s possible the frogs at the entrance are responsible for all this abundance. Glenda says legend has it if they face the front door they will bring lots of money to your house. Her croakers have been here for 15 years. Are they doing the business?
She smiles. “Well, we can still eat at night.”
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Story: Yvonne van Dongen
Photographs: Jane Ussher