An essence captured

In this digital age, the newspaper artist is becoming an endangered species. This was once a prestigious profession, and Australia has been blessed with some rare talents.

One of the best is Tony Rafty (real name Anthony Raftopoulis), born in Sydney in 1915. Fast approaching 100, he's still with us.

He is a prolific artist, completing more than 15,000 caricatures. Some would say this is a conservative figure.

Some works he especially treasures because they are personally signed by the subject. On December 16, a selection of these - 30 or so - will be sold through Leonard Joel in Melbourne.

This style of art rarely comes up for sale so the results will be interesting, especially for the feature attraction, a rare drawing of the Beatles signed by all four members.

Rafty did the sketch during the group's 1964 tour of Australia. After finishing the drawing, he asked the tour publicist to show them the work and ask if they would sign it. They happily agreed. Fortunately for him, he drew the group after Ringo Starr had arrived in Australia a few days late because of laryngitis. So how much is it worth?

A Sydney Morning Herald artist and admirer of Rafty's work, Rocco Fazzari, says Tony once told him he kept his Beatles drawing in a bank vault because it was worth $250,000.

Not quite.

The Leonard Joel specialist, Giles Moon, has given the drawing a more realistic estimate of $10,000 to $15,000. He has already received some overseas interest.

Other subjects score less well. Rafty drew Alfred Hitchcock when the director visited Australia in 1960 to launch Vertigo. Hitchcock was then the most bankable director in Hollywood. Now he's worth $100 to $150. Sadly, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis jnr, Nat King Cole and Bob Hope have suffered much the same fate. Moon explains that the sale estimates are largely determined by the value of the signatures to collectors. These can comprise up to 95 per cent of the total value.

According to this celebrity rating, a set of five Rolling Stones drawings, all signed but on separate sheets, is expected to fare much better. They are estimated at $500 to $700 for the set.

Most are dated 1966, around the time of the Stones's first tour of Australia, but the drawing of Brian Jones was signed in 1969, the year of his death. That fateful date may add extra value to this sketch.

Largely self-taught, Rafty was an old-school artist with the ability to do caricatures live from the subject that somehow captured their personality. The style may be dated, but it is obviously the work of a skilled craftsman. The problem with drawings by newspaper artists, Fazzari says, is they simply do too many - one a day in some cases.

Some would say their work is under-appreciated but the supply is far greater than the demand. ''Because there are so many drawings from different caricaturists, they lose their value,'' Fazzari says, ''but drawn live with the signatures, this really adds value.''

He suggests that the original work of other Australian newspaper artists could also be of some value in future. Rigby and Oliphant are two with potential, partly because they had major international careers.

Paul Rigby started at The West Australian newspaper before joining the Murdoch empire, eventually working for The Sun in Britain and the New York Post. He won five Walkley awards along the way.

Pat Oliphant started at The Advertiser in Adelaide then moved to the US, winning a Pulitzer prize for an editorial cartoon in 1967. His work is included in the National Portrait Gallery and in library collections.

Also at Leonard Joel's collectables sale is a selection of movie posters, each signed by one of the featured stars.

These were accumulated by celebrity photographer Richard Simpkin. Catalogue details and price estimates can be found on the Leonard Joel website (

This story An essence captured first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.